Developing, nurturing and running a small business is not for the faint hearted. Every year 660,000[i] new companies are registered in the UK – equivalent to 70 every hour. 20% of small businesses fail in their first year and 60% within three years. Small or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) account for three fifths of the employment and around half of the turnover in the UK private sector[ii].
Work-related stress accounts for over half of all working days lost due to ill-health. Stress affects us all at different times in different ways. Everyone has a different threshold. Right now, in the midst of a global health crises, small business owners are being the Finance Director, the HR Director, the Comms Director, Head of Governance and the Managing Director. Many OSH professionals run their own small businesses and added to this they are helping their clients to wear all these hats too.
How we behave now as leaders will remain firmly in the memory of our teams into the future. The burden is significant and we will not only loose people to the virus if we do not hold mental health and wellbeing in high regard right now.
Always consider prevention-first principals and, in this context look at how the business is organised; its overall management culture. Reduce what you are working on and only do what is absolutely needed at this time. The talking toolkit[iii] created by the HSE is designed to lead line managers and employers to risk assessing their general management arrangements and from here a strategy can be developed.
- Work demands and whether these are achievable, based on skills and abilities
- Control and the ability to have influence over the way work is undertaken
- Support from others, knowing how to access this support and giving/receiving regular constructive feedback
- Positive relationships and behaviours at work
- Defined roles and responsibilities with an ability to raise and deal with concerns
- Creating a consultative environment when the organisation is going through change
Running an SME is a risk often placed upon the shoulders of one person. The SME owner must nurture the same aspects as a larger organisation but without the support structure.
Payroll has to be run every month, VAT returns made every quarter, IT systems kept running, and new business nurtured. Right now the way businesses are functioning has changed in a matter of days.
The SME owner is a juggler who cannot allow a ball to drop whilst walking a tightrope with larger organisations who are their customers just to meet the wage bill at the end of the month. Right now they do not know how they are going to do this.
So, who is looking out for the health and wellbeing of our entrepreneurs?
Supply Chain Pressures
Larger organisations have a role to play in how they protect SMEs which supply them either directly or as sub-contractors. I once had a discussion with someone in PR who described how competitive it was. The long hours culture and high demands from much larger organisations led to her suffering from a mental health crisis and ultimately walking away from the business.
Someone else working for a significant supermarket chain described a conversation with a middle manager who used forcible language in a meeting to drive costs down and speed up work, with a disregard to how this was achieved.
Another colleague had her ideas effectively copied by another, larger organisation.
Someone else had a valued member of staff leave, take business with them and set up in competition.
These are not unusual stories and all of them are enormously stressful.
Feast or Famine
Whilst leadership books will talk about structured, planned growth the reality in any SME is a new contract and completion of a project are rarely likely to coincide. Situations such as fewer people to spread work when demand is high and loss of jobs or hours if work is not there are a constant reality. A change in direction due to changes in customers’ requirements, in the region or in politics can have a significant impact. It is the SME owner who will shoulder all this.
The nature of SME’s is that every member of the team is an important cog in a wheel. If for whatever reason someone leaves – perhaps because they do not have the skills to adapt to a fast-changing environment or are simply unsuited to the work - it will probably be the SME owner who has to work through important HR arrangements to deal with this. Most will not have an HR resource which means no support or guidance for SME owners who have to terminate employment.
Quite simply the SME business owner may not have the level of control perceived. If they have been a high performer in a different type of organisation or they have come from a large company, it is a very different place to be. It is possible to feel crushed by the sense of rejection.
It can become a lonely place to be. One where you work closely with a small team but cannot confide entirely.
- Create a network of support. It can be easy to feel you have to take it all on alone but there will be people out there who have been exactly where you are and can support you. Join a professional organisation – consider a management organisation such as the Institute of Directors. Right now this is critical because the burdens are great. Leaders can not support their teams without their own support in place too.
- Have a mentor and/or be a mentor. For OSH professionals, IOSH Mentoring is a fantastic platform: https://www.iosh.com/my-iosh/iosh-mentoring/
- If you work for a large organisation consider the health & wellbeing of all your suppliers including those beyond contractors who might work on site for you. In driving down costs or driving up demands consider the impact of the decisions made, or not made
- Delegate where possible, especially administrative tasks which do not need your time such as payroll or accounts
- Take time out to do the things you enjoy. The wellbeing of the SME owner will be mirrored by everyone else within the organisation. Stress can be infectious
- Have the confidence to walk away from over-demanding customers who expect more than they are willing to pay for - nurturing them will zap energy from across the business
- Take time out to have team meetings to build a positive culture
- Do not believe you have to have all the answers to everything. Listen to those around you, really listen, and give others the space to be innovative
- Know there are some things you cannot control, especially right now
- If it isn’t working, try something new.
Louise Hosking CMIOSH CEnvH MCIEH CMaPS PIEMA SIIRSM
Consultancy Group Committee Member