When you start a business, you want to have control over your own destiny and to build something special. You want to be your own boss, with no one else to answer to. And once you take on staff, you want them to come to work with a spring in their step and an enthusiasm for what they do.
What you don’t want is stress. After all, stress is an enemy of productivity, especially if it’s affecting your workforce. Not only that: it makes for an unattractive working environment for current employees or prospective recruits. This is the last thing SMEs already struggling with attracting talent need. Stress is also bad for mental health, an important issue that is now being properly recognised and addressed.
But it seems that stress is prevalent in small businesses, starting with the business owners.
Small-business platform Xero found numerous factors are putting an increasing strain on the mental health of SME owners. The majority (83 per cent) of respondents experienced stress in the previous six months, with 17 per cent reporting they are ‘highly stressed’.
As for staff, nearly half of employees in UK small businesses have changed jobs because of work-related frustrations and stresses that were not addressed by management, according to research by software firm Process Bliss. In addition, one-third of respondents said they had called in sick because of work-related stress.
Particularly relevant is that 38 per cent of respondents reported that working for a small business was more stressful than working for a bigger firm.
The sources of stress in small businesses also seem to differ from those in larger organisations. Research by contractor payroll and accountancy specialist The Dolan Contractor Group found that 47 per cent of SME employees identified sources of stress that included low pay, the inability to build savings and no chance of progression. In contrast, most employees in large companies said long working hours (40 per cent) caused them the most stress, followed by overwork and management pressure (36 per cent).
When respondents were asked how they tackled the problem, 30 per cent of those at large companies said they would speak to their manager. However, just 12 per cent of SME employees gave the same response, possibly due to anonymity being harder to achieve in a company with fewer staff.
There is clearly work for SMEs to do to combat stress within their organisation. And both employees and business owners can benefit from managing and reducing stress levels more effectively. So what can SMEs do to deal with this issue?
According to senior clinical psychologist Dr Jivan Culshaw – who helps organisations change how managers deal with stress and build resilience in the workforce – organisations have a responsibility to act, as prevention is a better long-term investment than looking for a cure after the fact. As part of this, managers should develop their understanding of workforce stress and work towards a culture where people feel supported and helped before they burn out.
Culshaw added that helpful ways of coping with stress include talking about problems in a supportive environment, ensuring a healthy work-life balance and developing problem-solving techniques, in which people recognise signs of stress early and practice methods to manage stress effectively.
Mindfulness techniques can also help, along with a recognition of individuals’ needs and making behavioural changes. Workshops focused on building resilience and developing adaptive responses to stress are also beneficial.
Management styles and models associated with varying levels of employee stress should also be taken into account. For example, management teams that involve and consult the workforce about changes and decisions are likely to increase the level of perceived control that employees have over their jobs, thus reducing stress.
Businesses should also offer access to psychological support to demonstrate their commitment to helping staff deal with the demands of work.
Advice from the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) includes encouraging employees to talk to someone, whether it’s their line manager, GP or occupational health team. The organisation also provides ‘Talking Toolkits’ to help line managers have “simple, practical conversations with employees which can help prevent stress”. In addition, the HSE suggests organisations should develop individual action plans for employees suffering from stress.
Stress is a fact of modern life. It can be caused by things at work, as well as by factors outside of the work environment. But there are steps SMEs can take to reduce stress for staff, and to ensure they are supported when they are being affected by stress. After all, a happy workplace is often a successful workplace.