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Carol Sheriff
Director of Wilson Sherriff Ltd which supports 'In Business for Good'
Carol Sheriff

Fluctuating health conditions – what does this mean for small business owners?

Authors: Carol Sheriff director of Wilson Sherriff Ltd

22 January 2015

I have to confess that until last December when I joined a roundtable hosted by The Work Foundation’s Health at Work Policy Unit, I didn’t know what ‘fluctuating health conditions’ were, much less that I have at least one such condition and, within the small business I run, we have more than 10 years’ experience of helping individuals manage such conditions.

However, the roundtable set me thinking that perhaps my own experience is replicated many times over in the small business sector. If I consider the ‘in Business for Good’ network I host, I estimate that as many as half of the small business owners either have a condition themselves or a member of staff who has a condition - such as asthma, arthritis, cancer, depression or MS - that fluctuates in its intensity, often having little or no effect on your ability to work but on occasions having a profound effect. It struck me that it is not only small business owners who do not recognise how much they support people with ‘fluctuating conditions’, their contribution is overlooked by policy makers and support organisations as well. Small and medium sized businesses account for 60% of employment in the private sector and the very smallest businesses make up nearly 50%.  While we don’t have accurate statistics, it is likely that large numbers of people with fluctuating conditions are employed in small businesses and that quite a few of the owners of small businesses also have such a condition.

If we are to improve the support for people with fluctuating conditions and enable them to continue to work, we have to work with small business owners. And if we are to do that, we need to recognise that the way small businesses offer support is going to be different to that of big corporates.

A small business such as mine does not have an occupational health department or even access to occupational health advice ,beyond what we can find on the internet. What we do have is strong personal relationships. There are great advantages to this but also some disadvantages. As a small business owner, I know everyone who works with me. I can quickly make decisions – for example, if people need time off at short notice, need to work early hours because they suffer from fatigue, or have mobility problems so later hours make it easier for them to get to work. Like many small firms, we all have a wide job remit and are used to working together to cover the peaks and troughs in demand. As a business, we can and do give time off to attend pilates sessions, go running and walking at lunchtime, have regular breaks and encourage activities such as meditation and healthy eating.

Of course these personal relationships have their disadvantages. They rely on the owner knowing about and understanding the nature of these conditions. The very closeness of a small business community can make people reluctant to disclose what they often regard as a weakness – particularly if they are the small business owner themselves. Few small business owners want their staff or customers to know they have a health condition for fear of the effect on morale and business.

So what can we do to help?

The publication of 
Fluctuating conditions, fluctuating support by The Work Foundation  is a huge step in the right direction. Now we need to make sure that the support offered to businesses includes services tailor-made for smaller business and we need to capture the attention of small business owners so that they will do even more to help themselves and their staff.

If you are a small business owner, do share your experience on Twitter or #HealthatWork