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This won’t hurt a bit: how can we support small business to be healthy, wealthy and wise?

Authors: Dr Libby McEnhill Researcher at The Work Foundation

24 November 2015

Although they are individually small in size, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – businesses employing 0-249 people - make a substantial contribution to the UK economy. They account for 99.9% of UK private sector businesses, and 99.3% of these (5.3 million) are ‘small’ businesses, employing less than 50 people. In total, SMEs employ 15.6 million people, or 60% of the private sector workforce, and they contribute 47% - £1.8 trillion – of private sector turnover in the UK.

Supporting and managing the health of the working-age population matters, both in terms of boosting productivity and helping to protect employees’ broader wellbeing, and it is increasingly recognised that employers have an important role to play. Yet there are indications that current support in this area is not working effectively for small business. Our report, This Won’t Hurt a Bit: supporting small business to be healthy, wealthy and wise, released today, identifies three areas that we believe policy-makers have scope to address, offering a series of recommendations on these.

Firstly, there is an issue around owner-manager awareness of the business case for engagement with employee health and wellbeing, and around making the business case relevant to SMEs. Some small business owner-managers already proactively support, or want to support, the health of their employees, but others fail to perceive the business case for doing so. The result is that health and wellbeing is still too often viewed as an individual issue, to be dealt with by the employee themselves through support outside the workplace, rather than one that is central to business success and therefore a necessary concern of business owner-managers. Part of the problem is also that SME stakeholders are not sufficiently involved in developing initiatives in this area, and this means that messages can lack relevance to small business. Addressing this problem will require much greater strategic leadership from the business community – in particular, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills – in communicating the business case for SME engagement with health and wellbeing at work, and ensuring that current and future policy initiatives adequately meet their needs. To this end, we also suggest that a cross-departmental SME stakeholder group should be convened to provide an ‘SME lens’ through which to view policy development, and that the impact on SME workforce health should be a specific consideration in policy evaluations, such as Fit for Work and the Workplace Wellbeing Charter.

Secondly, owner-managers who are interested in this area struggle with a lack of appropriate resources such as training or access to occupational health and other services that account for small business needs. We know that small business use resources in different ways to their larger contemporaries: for example, they are less able to take time away from business for training, they tend to prefer services that come to them in the workplace, and are often unable to provide conventional health support interventions such as occupational health for reasons of both time and money.

As such, the government needs to invest in producing appropriate training and support resources. This will require input from SMEs themselves, and coproduction with the stakeholder group will be essential to producing well-used, relevant resources. We also need to think more creatively about how SMEs are able to access support, including looking into and evaluating shared and pooled models of occupational health provision (such as the Olympic Park/Athlete’s Village model) and improving access to private insurance, which is often expensive and inaccessible to SMEs.

Finally, although the aforementioned time and financial constraints mean that we can expect small business owners to rely extensively on government-provided services, there is a lack of awareness of these amongst SME owner-managers, alongside an intimidatingly wide array of advice for the small business owner who does attempt to find out more. Moreover, not all of the advice that is available from sources such as the Department for Work and Pensions and Department of Health is relevant to small businesses, and drawing out the parts that are can be challenging for owner-managers who, understandably, are not experts in occupational health.

SMEs therefore need to be given a clear steer on where to go to access information and support which is relevant to their needs. The creation of a ‘one stop shop’ or portal, integrated with services that SMEs already use for business development, perhaps using a similar model to the former Business Link service, would be very useful in achieving this. For those SMEs who do not actively seek out information on workforce health support, we need to improve the ways that we get information on existing services and support to the. This requires recognising that there is no one central source of information that all SMEs will use, and hence  making use of a range of communication channels and of relationships that already exist between SMEs and business services. These include local authorities, and business organisations and services such as LEPs and growth funds.

Ultimately, the services that we provide to small businesses, and the way that we promote and evaluate these, need to reflect that small businesses are not simply scaled-down versions of large businesses. They have their own ways of working, and they encounter health problems differently. They access services differently (if they access them at all), and have different constraints on what is possible. They also have to take different considerations into account when deciding whether to engage with the employee health and wellbeing agenda. If we are to meet the challenge of supporting the health of the UK’s SME employees, we need to ensure that these differences are fully accounted for in the services that we provide to SME owner-managers, both now and in the future.