Over recent years, there has been an increased recognition of the role that mental health plays in our overall well-being. In the UK workplace, particularly within the small business environment, this recognition is both crucial and challenging.
In this month’s blog, we explore the problem and impact of long-term sickness and mental health on UK small businesses, along with strategies for managing them and the role that HR providers play in supporting small businesses.
In a report published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) 2021/22, 1.8 million workers in the UK were found to be suffering from a work-related illness, either physical or mental, with 51% suffering from stress, depression or anxiety.
This has a significant impact on businesses, with around 38.8 million working days lost to ill health and non-fatal workplace injuries in the same year. These issues hit small businesses particularly hard. With limited resources, smaller staff numbers, and a lack of specialised HR departments, long-term employee sickness can pose substantial operational and financial challenges.
Long-term sickness absence, whether due to physical illness or mental health issues, can cripple small businesses. Each absent employee represents a gap in skills, productivity, and output.
Financially, there’s the cost of sick pay, potentially hiring temporary workers, and potentially increased insurance premiums. In addition, employees’ long-term absence could contribute to low morale amongst the remaining staff, particularly if they must shoulder additional responsibilities or workload.
Mental health issues have emerged as a leading cause of long-term sickness. According to the Centre for Mental Health, mental health problems in the UK workforce cost employers up to £45 billion each year.
For small businesses operating on tight margins, these costs can be significant.
Given the potential impacts, it’s important for small businesses to create a supportive environment for employees and have processes in place to manage long-term sickness. Here are a few strategies that can help:
Early Intervention: One of the best ways to manage long-term sickness is to intervene early. Encourage employees to report when they are feeling unwell and develop a work culture where seeking help is not stigmatised. Engaging with Occupational Health Services can be beneficial in identifying potential issues and implementing preventive measures.
Robust Policy: Establish a comprehensive sickness management policy that’s clear, compassionate, and fair. It should outline processes to follow when an employee becomes sick, how to handle gradual returns to work, and potential accommodations for those with disabilities. Ensure the policy is accessible and communicated to all staff.
Mental Health Support: Offering mental health support is essential in today’s workplace. This could be through providing access to counselling services, promoting mental health awareness, or creating a psychologically safe and inclusive environment. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training can equip staff with the skills to spot early signs of mental health problems and provide initial support.
Flexible Working: Implementing flexible working can be a proactive way to manage sickness absence. Flexible hours or remote working can help employees balance work with their health needs, reducing the likelihood of long-term absences.
Insurance and External Support: Small businesses should consider income protection insurance, which can provide financial support when an employee is unable to work due to sickness. Access to Work, a government initiative, may also provide support for those with a disability or health condition.
The Role of HR Providers
Human Resource (HR) providers can play an indispensable role in navigating long-term sickness and mental health issues in the workplace. For small businesses that may not have an in-house HR department or sufficient expertise, enlisting the help of an external HR provider can provide much-needed support and resources.
Expert Guidance: HR providers can provide expert guidance on how to handle long-term sickness absences, from understanding employment law and rights to supporting the business through complex situations. They can help ensure your business remains compliant with the law, while also supporting your staff compassionately.
Developing Policies: Crafting a well-defined sickness management policy can be daunting. HR providers have the expertise to create robust, comprehensive, and legally sound policies that are tailor-made for your business, covering everything from sick pay to return-to-work plans. They can also help communicate these policies effectively across the organisation.
Training and Development: HR providers often offer training programmes that can help businesses better manage sickness and mental health issues. These might include Mental Health First Aid training, stress management workshops, or management training on how to handle sickness absences.
Mental Health Support: Many HR providers now offer mental health support services, which can be an invaluable resource for small businesses. This could involve providing access to counselling or therapeutic services, setting up employee assistance programmes, or giving advice on how to create a more mentally healthy workplace.
Return-to-Work Support: Managing the return-to-work process after a long-term absence can be a sensitive task. HR providers can provide guidance on how to facilitate this process smoothly, considering both the needs of the business and the welfare of the returning employee.
Ultimately, the objective of any HR intervention should be to create a supportive and understanding workplace culture that can accommodate the realities of long-term sickness and mental health issues. The expert support provided by HR providers can greatly assist small businesses in achieving this goal.
While an investment, the benefits of engaging an HR provider – from improved staff well-being and morale to reduced sickness absence and legal compliance – are significant and have far-reaching positive effects on the overall health of the business.
The issue of long-term sickness and mental health in the UK workplace is complex and multi-faceted, particularly within small businesses. However, by understanding the impacts, creating a supportive work culture, and having robust policies in place, small businesses can not only effectively manage these challenges but also turn them into opportunities to show their commitment to employee well-being, enhancing their appeal to current and potential employees alike.