Stress and mental health problems are an all-too-common part of our modern life, and those running a business are particularly high risk. But there are steps that company owners can take to alleviate the problem, for themselves and those who work for them, as Penelope Rance explains.
An insidious illness is undermining UK productivity, and small businesses are particularly vulnerable. Figures from mental health charity Mind show that poor mental health costs the economy up to £99 billion per year, with 70 million working days lost due to mental health issues. Most at risk are small businesses, which form the majority of the 40 per cent of firms lacking mental health policies to support employees and protect their business.
For them, the danger is two-fold: the health of their employees but also their own mental wellbeing, both of which are vital for a successful business. “What typically happens is business owners carry the pressure and responsibility on their shoulders, and keep problems close to their chests to avoid worrying others,” says Mel Joseph, founder of workplace mental health support firm Mente.
“All that can develop into stress and declining mental health, with crippling consequences for the owner, staff and business.”
Understanding of, and response to, the issue is improving, however. FSB’s medical and health advice service reports that the number of SMEs seeking mental health support
has doubled in the last five years. This is crucial, because they are more vulnerable
to the consequences of mental illness.
Compounding the problem, though, is a lack of resources to tackle problems if they arise. “Small businesses often don’t have HR departments with procedures in place to support staff welfare,” says Christine Husbands, Managing Director of FSB Care.
“Often job roles can be blurred, with employees involved in many different areas and bearing conflicting pressures with little or no support or training. When absence occurs, the impact can be much greater: one person represents a large percentage of the workforce.”
Even without absences, when someone is suffering, it affects everyone. “Employees are often reluctant to take time off if they are unwell for fear of letting down their colleagues,” adds Ms Husbands.
Staff retention is also intrinsically linked to mental health – and losing employees can devastate a small business. “Staff whose mental health is not supported at work are more likely to leave,” points out Laurence Davies, head of training & consultancy at the charity Rethink Mental Illness. “SMEs are keenly aware that a business is built on its people, and its ability to keep them. Recruitment is also connected. Who wants to join a company where the staff are stressed, burned out or not mentally well?”
Small business owners are not only prone to damage from the effects of mental illness on staff, they are also subject to a unique set of pressures that increase the chances of them also feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
“Having ultimate responsibility and knowing the buck stops with me can be a lonely place,” admits Ashley Tate, CEO of student utility bills portal Split the Bills. “Sometimes there are no easy answers, and doing the right thing can feel like the wrong thing. The decisions I make impact my life, and my family’s life, but also the lives and families of everyone who works for me.”
That weight of responsibility can have a negative impact. “When people start their own business, they do so in anticipation of more freedom, flexibility and control,” says Ms Joseph. “The reality is very different, and especially in the early stages can be the opposite. This leaves them working longer hours, making poor lifestyle choices and having reduced family time.”
Figures from Mind show that small business owners work 13 hours per week over the UK average of 37, with 80 hours not uncommon. And even when they’re not working, they’re not switched off. “I can’t remember a day that I haven’t thought about work – even my wedding day. It’s impossible to disconnect,” reveals Mr Tate.
FSB research shows that the isolation of working alone is one of the top three challenges of self-employment (cited by a quarter of people), and a report by Aldermore (March 2017) revealed that more than a third (39 per cent) of Britons have felt lonely since becoming their own boss. FSB encourages its members to make the most of FSB Connect networking events across the UK, and has worked with the Jo Cox Foundation to help tackle loneliness.
For small businesses, cash is key. Not knowing if you can cover operational costs, chasing unpaid invoices when bills are looming, and putting personal credit on the line are all high stressors. “Worry over cashflow in a business can lead to sleepless nights and the use of unhealthy choices such as alcohol to cope, which will lead to a decline in mental health if left unmanaged,” warns Ms Joseph.
The good news is that there are practical steps small business owners can take to prevent and alleviate their own mental health issues and those of their employees. “Being small may mean you’re under higher pressure and have less support from an HR function, but paradoxically you’re in a better position to do some good,” says Mind’s Head of Workplace Wellbeing Programmes (strategy and development) Faye McGuinness. “You’re more likely to notice a colleague’s not doing well, a gesture from you makes a bigger difference when there aren’t 500 employees giving the opposite message, and you can change organisational culture more easily.”
Prioritising mental wellbeing boosts morale and productivity, adds Ms Husbands. “Simple things such as thinking about opportunities for healthy eating, the physical environment, the chance to have a walk at lunchtime, as well as appropriate support services, can all be helpful,” she says.
Creating an environment of open communication allows people to understand their own situation, and help others. “It’s essential that employees are able to have open and honest conversations about their mental health, free of stigma and discrimination,” says Mairead Rowan, Workplace Officer at See Me, Scotland’s programme to end mental health stigma and discrimination. A See Me survey of Scottish workers highlighted why this is so important – 48 per cent thought someone with a mental health problem would be unlikely to disclose it for fear of losing their job.
It’s vital to stamp out any negativity, says Mr Joseph. “Nip any form of malice or bullying in the bud. One person can damage a whole company, so have zero tolerance. And be mindful of your own behaviours: often leaders forget the rule book on emotional intelligence when under pressure.”
The physical working environment is as important as the social. Ms McGuinness advises that light levels, noise and temperature can all affect mental wellbeing. “Space dividers give people room to think, while dedicated quiet spaces allow time to reset in a hectic environment,” she says. “At the other end of the scale, for staff working in an isolated environment, make sure there are clear, regular lines of communication, even if it’s just a scheduled phone catch-up.”
Don’t forget quality time away from the business. “It’s easier said than done, but work/life balance is a massive element of maintaining mental as well as physical wellbeing,” says Mr Davies. “And it’s not necessarily about doing it perfectly. Think on a personal level what realistic steps you can take to control your working hours, spend time offline, and have those boundaries.”
Creating a wellness action plan can help. “Taking a few minutes to write out some elements for maintaining your own wellbeing is really powerful,” says Mr Davies. “Small businesses can be very good at planning, so take a project management approach to mental wellbeing.”
There are also a range of support tools on offer (see box). FSB has created a guide for small business owners on approaching mental health in the workplace, which provides links to other organisations offering more detailed information and advice. And the Mental Health for Small Workplaces e-learning syllabus was developed by Mind, in conjunction with FSB. Free to access, it’s made up of three modules: building your awareness, looking after yourself, and supporting each other.
You could work with other organisations, signing up to the Time To Change campaign or getting a bespoke solution from a company such as Mente. ReThink Mental Illness provides workplace training and also offers an advice and information service to help people navigate the available support.
The FSB Chairman’s chosen charity for the next three years is Heads Together, a mental health initiative spearheaded by The Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. It combines a campaign to tackle stigma and change the conversation on mental health with fundraising for a series of innovative new mental health services. FSB has worked with the foundation to help create a toolkit for small businesses.
Whatever approach you take, start by recognising the importance of mental wellbeing in your workplace, and making a plan to protect it.