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10 Top Tips for Reducing Stress at SMEs

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Given such a high proportion of the UK SME workforce regularly feels stressed, it’s essential we ask ourselves what can be done to address the issue.

When asked why they had needed to take sick leave in the past 12 months, a third of SME employees had needed time off due to their mental health, more than had needed time off for conditions such as bad backs.

This piles on the pressure to solve what is already a very pressing problem.

So what can be done to address the issue of poor mental health in the workplace? And are there ways to do it cost-effectively for small businesses?

In the below guide, we’ve laid out our top 10 tips to help SMEs with the growing mental health crisis they’re facing across the country.

Try Introducing Flexible Working

Flexible working or flexi-time involves giving employees some degree of autonomy over not just their hours but also potentially where they work from.

Flexi-time might involve:

  • Starting work later/earlier and finishing later/earlier
  • ‘Compressed hours’, where you work the same number of hours you’re contracted but over fewer working days
  • Part- or full-time home working / teleworking
  • Job sharing
  • Time off in lieu
  • Otherwise changing hours to fit around lifestyle, e.g. family caring responsibilities, education needs etc.

When asked which employee benefits they’d most like to see, flexible working topped the list. 42.3% of SME workers wanted flexi-time.

Introducing Flexi-Time

Given such a high proportion of the SME population wanted flexible hours, this could be one of the first benefits / perks bosses introduce.

It’s essentially free aside from a little extra administration and can go a significant way towards improving employee morale and potentially even reducing stress.

Employees currently have the right to ask for flexible working:

  • A statutory request
  • A non-statutory request

To make a statutory request, which a worker is entitled to do once every 12 months, an employee must:

  • Be an employee
  • Have a continuous period of 26 weeks working at the company under their belt
  • Not be an employee not entitled to ask for flexi-time (e.g. armed forces, agency workers, a person who’s asked in the past 12 months for flexible working, regardless of whether the request was agreed)
  • Make the request in writing.

As the employer, you must consider the request seriously and complete the whole process (including dealing with any appeal) within 3 months.

If an employee isn’t entitled to make a statutory request, they can make a non-statutory one. This isn’t covered by the flexible working law, so there’s no set procedure for making a request. However, it’s advisable they make the request in writing still.

Incentivise Healthy Habits

Physical activity has a great impact not only on general health but on mental health, too. Mental health benefits of exercise include:

  • Reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression – exercise releases endorphins, one of the body’s natural ‘happy chemicals’
  • A self-esteem boost from getting fitter and potentially reducing excessive weight
  • Reduced loneliness and isolation if you participate in a team sport
  • Better sleeping patterns.

Encouraging physical activity in the workplace could take many forms. It might be something as simple as promoting employees not taking their lunch at their desks. Even a simple stroll around the block can be beneficial, especially in winter when daylight hours are short and precious, and can add to a daily step count.

Another way could be to promote more face-to-face interactions between colleagues. Instead of emailing, instant messaging or phoning across the office, getting up and visiting a coworker’s desk will add more steps to a worker’s daily count.

Some companies even invest in fitness trackers for their workers, which alert coworkers to excessive periods of sitting and encourage them to move more and generally track fitness and fitness goals.

You might even negotiate a discount on membership at a local gym / leisure centre. 15.6% of SME workers wanted to see discounts at local retail / leisure outlets provided by their employers.

The other facet to a healthier lifestyle is nutrition. Getting the right balance of vitamins and minerals is essential for not only physical health, but also mental health.

Managing caffeine intake can also improve mental health, especially anxiety-related conditions. Offering decaffeinated versions of tea and coffee at work could help.

Moreover, 24.1% of SME workers wanted to see their workplace offering free snacks. If you do decide to introduce snacks as a perk, making sure these are healthy options, e.g. fruit, rather than unhealthier snacks such as biscuits will encourage a healthier, more balanced diet among your workers.

Leadership Training on Stress

Often, change needs to come from the top.

That’s why it’s important to train line managers and bosses on how to spot the signs of stress and other mental health problems so they can provide early intervention before it becomes a major issue. It may be useful to train managers to monitor workloads so employees are never over-stretched and at risk of stress.

This might take the form of a seminar or other training course, or even something as simple as providing resources from charities such as Mind and the Mental Health Foundation for them to read and refer to when needed.

Bosses and line managers should be as sympathetic and understanding about employees requiring time off to deal with their mental health as they would do a physical health problem.

Both mental and physical illnesses are covered by disability discrimination legislation, which requires employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for those with any kind of disability. This includes allowing time off, regularly if necessary, for any mental health treatment required.

Better understanding of stress and mental health problems is essential given that these two causes of workplace absence accounted for a third of sick leave taken by employers in the past 12 months.

Improving Employee Engagement

According to Drewberry’s new Employee Benefits Survey, 47.7% of SME workers are thinking of moving jobs in the next 12 months.

When asked why they were unhappy at work, 34.7% said it was because they felt like they didn’t have a voice within the company and 32.3% said it was down to a lack of internal communication.

It’s important that employees feel valued and engaged at work. This can improve productivity and reduce staff turnover, both of which can make a real tangible difference to your bottom line.

Totally disengaged employees can also have increased absence levels compared to engaged employees, as they’re more likely to take time off work. They’re also more likely to feel stressed and overwhelmed because they don’t feel like they have a voice or are listened to by the business.

Often, engagement is all about better communication of your company’s purpose, vision and drive. Often this is spelled out for clients but not necessarily for the people in charge of delivering that vision.

Listening is a key part of promoting better employee engagement. To ensure employees feel comfortable airing their views and suggestions for improving engagement, you could set up an anonymous survey to collect results.

Introducing Employee Benefits

29.4% of individuals looking for a new job in the next 12 months were considering the employee benefits and perks on offer at other companies when thinking of making a move.

Given that employee benefits are more common among larger companies (especially paid-for benefits such as group insurance), larger companies may well be attracting employees away from smaller businesses. This suggests that smaller companies need to look at upping their game in this area to avoid losing valuable staff to larger rivals.

When SME workers were asked what benefits they’d like to see at their company, some of the most commonly-requested benefits were insurance products.

 Nadeem Farid Head of Employee Benefits at Drewberry

Employee benefits such as group insurance are a great way to make employees feel valued. What’s more, they don’t have to cost a fortune.

Death in Service cover (also known as Group Life Insurance) is second in the list of insurances employees would like employers to offer yet is actually one of the cheapest group benefits available.

Nadeem Farid
Head of Employee Benefits at Drewberry

Many group policies also come with an employee assistance programme or EAP.

This provides an array of services and helplines that employees can use, even when they’re not making a claim, potentially including:

  • Legal advice;
  • Financial support / guidance (e.g. debt advice);
  • Medical advice;
  • Remote GP services;
  • Bereavement counselling;
  • Face-to-face counselling / cognitive behavioural therapy;
  • Rehabilitation services / physiotherapy;
  • Support for those caring for dependent relatives.

Many of these services can be used to combat poor mental health and stress at work. This doesn’t just include counselling – we also asked employees just what was stressing them out.

Money worries topped the list, with 59% of SME workers being concerned about money. It’s here where the financial support element could prove invaluable.

Meanwhile, a third of workers were stressed about family responsibilities, something that is only likely to rise as the population ages and the ‘sandwich generation’ – stuck between caring for elderly parents and caring for children – have to take on more responsibility for relatives.

Not only can the benefits themselves – such as Group Income Protection, which provides an extended sick pay – alleviate many potential stresses, but employee assistance programmes can also assist workers suffering from stress or a mental health condition.

Back to Work Interviews

Minor illnesses account for the bulk of sick days taken in the past year, with 58.9% of people needing time off for coughs, colds, flu, stomach upsets etc. in the past 12 months.

However, stress and mental health conditions combined accounted for a third of all time off, highlighting the seriousness of the issue.

While it’s unlikely that those returning to work from a minor illness would benefit from a back to work interview, and it’s unlikely the company would benefit either, it’s a different story for more serious conditions. This includes mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

Back to work interviews provide an opportunity for returning employees to give voice to any issues or feelings of stress, as well as giving employers the chance spot potential areas of concern. If an employee has been off sick with work-related stress or another mental health condition, preemptive action can prevent an employee from needing further time off soon after they return.

Areas of concern and the issues raised in these interviews might be addressed, for example, by adjusting working hours for that employee and adapting working practises to fit around their needs.

Don’t Pressure Staff to Be ‘Always On’

A key factor in stress and burnouts among employees is excessive working pressure. This includes the need to be ‘excessively present‘ or ‘always on’.

Presenteeism comes in many forms. The first sees an employee present at work but not working at full capacity, such as when they try to work through an illness for fear of taking time off to recover.

Alternatively, it can involve putting in more hours than necessary, such as sacrificing annual leave to work. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a trend that’s spiralling out of control in the UK. 86% of UK workers have reportedly observed presenteeism in their organisation in the last 12 months and over a quarter of these report that presenteeism has increased over this period.

A recent report from the University of West England found that 54% of people on commuter trains to London were working before they even entered the office, using the train’s Wi-Fi connection to send work-related emails.

The rise of mobile phones and email and instant messaging on the move has blurred the boundaries between work and home life, with many people now checking their work emails outside of the office, at the weekend and even while on holiday!

Solutions to presenteeism

Solutions to these issues can be simple. Ensuring staff take sick leave when they’re too ill to be at work is a key factor in reducing presenteeism.

Meanwhile, setting clear boundaries between work and home to encourage a better work / life balance (34.7% of people unhappy at work were miserable because of poor work / life balance) can be beneficial.

Another important factor to consider is an email policy that agrees workers don’t have to be contactable outside of office hours.

In France, workers won the ‘right to disconnect’ in 2016. This obliges companies with more than 50 employees to draw up a charter of good conduct, setting out the hours when staff are not supposed to send or answer emails. This addresses feelings among staff that they’re not being fairly compensated for the overtime involved in checking and replying to emails outside of work.

Supporters of the law claim it will reduce the risk of stress, burnout, sleep problems and relationship difficulties.

German car manufacturing giant Daimler has taken the law into their own hands by introducing a policy that means workers can request their emails be auto-deleted when they’re on holiday. People sending emails to out of office workers will receive an email saying that the individual they’re trying to contact is on vacation and that their email will not be read and they should contact the worker on their return.

One design agency in the Netherlands has come up with a particularly novel way of ensuring employees finish work on time and don’t work late – the desks literally disappear into the ceiling at the end of the day!

Encourage Staff to Take Regular Breaks

Workers are entitled to their breaks, whether this is the statutory 20 minutes every 6 hours or their 5.6 weeks of annual leave each year.

The important thing to reduce stress in the workplace is encouraging staff to take all the breaks to which they’re entitled.

This can be challenging in a small business where every worker counts, but if staff feel that they don’t have sufficient time to take the breaks to which they’re entitled and therefore miss them they often lose out in terms of their mental health.

Regular meetings throughout the holiday year, especially towards the end of that year, regarding any built up holiday days staff have should be arranged. That way, both employers and employees become aware if there’s a build-up of untaken leave and can address the issue by making time for the employee to take the holiday they’re entitled to.

Another healthy habit to encourage is moving away from workstations at lunch and avoiding eating lunch at desks. This is good for posture, reducing the risk of musculoskeletal issues, and taking a full break to go outside can be beneficial for employees’ overall mood.

Implement a Stress Policy

Many companies have policies that deal with a range of issues among staff, but what often gets forgotten is a policy about managing stress.

As well as showing staff that your organisation plans to prevent stress, any decent stress management policy needs to document how it will help potential sufferers.

The Health and Safety Executive has guidelines on what should be included in a stress policy and includes a sample policy on its website.

Two key areas need to be covered by a stress policy:

  • Steps that will prevent stress
  • Steps that will be taken if an employee is suffering from stress.

A stress management policy should make reference to risk assessments and stress audits but will also lay out the training and education you’ll provide to managers and employees to combat stress and the causes of stress in the workplace. It will also advise on the pathway employees should follow if they are stressed.

Generally, it’s recommended that there are several ‘branches’ of this pathway – for instance, if an employee is stressed because of their line manager, it makes no sense for the line manager to be the sole person to approach to help them deal with stress. Options may include human resources, a trade union representative or an employee assistance programme.

Once the stress management policy is ready, it needs to be made readily available so that employees are aware of it. This could include placing it in the staff handbook, on the intranet and making reference to it in relevant training and awareness days.

In our employee benefits survey, we found that 27.8% of employers only communicated employee benefits to their workers once a year. The stress management policy, like other employee benefits, will work best when it’s regularly made apparent to workers.

Boosting Employee Morale

Employee morale plays a big factor in staff retention. Workplaces with low morale have higher staff turnover, higher rates of absenteeism and lower productivity.

Improving morale could be as simple as a weekly or monthly drinks session to thank your workers for their hard work, or a more structured offering of regular team-building activities.

Other options you might want to consider implementing include:

  • Regular employee reviews – this encourages dialogue between employers and employees and can help iron out any issues before they blow up into larger problems
  • Encouraging / acting on feedback – it’s not enough to simply have regular reviews; employers need to encourage feedback in these reviews and act on what they receive
  • Progression opportunities / training – in our survey, when we asked the type of benefits employees would like to see, those that encouraged training and development ranked highly, especially among the young
  • Setting small and achievable targets – having unachievable targets can be hugely demotivating for employees; breaking up tasks into smaller ones that feel more achievable can help
  • Celebrate accomplishments – even a small celebration, such as an ’employee of the month / quarter’ style award, can go a long way to boosting employee morale
  • Casual dress code – when we asked employees which benefits they’d like to see, 13.9% said a casual dress code
  • Bonuses – if employees hit their targets, a bonus scheme is a surefire way to help boost morale.

Poor employee morale can contribute to stress. If workers have to come in to an environment each day that they dislike and don’t feel motivated in because of poor morale, they’re more likely to suffer from stress and their performance at work will suffer.

Nadeem Farid Head of Employee Benefits at Drewberry

Reducing stress is vital in an environment where a third of UK SME workers have needed to take time off due to stress or a mental health condition in the past year and 55% of the workforce is stressed out.

These tips are designed not only to reduce stress but also improve employee morale and engagement, which can in itself help keep stress to a minimum for a happier, healthier workforce.

Nadeem Farid
Head of Employee Benefits at Drewberry

Drew was incredibly helpful all the way along and very responsive and patient with any questions I had (which were many). He was able to get me a much better deal on my new health insurance than I had been able to get online. A success all round!

Francesc Sale
07/06/2019
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