The following is an adapted extract from Jill Poet, the CEO of Organisation for Responsible Businesses‘ book, ‘It Really Is Just Good Business’. In step with Mental Health Awareness Week 15th-21st May 2023, this excerpt talks about Employee Health and Wellbeing, particularly for small and micro business owners.
More than just ‘duty’ to your employees
Most business owners understand it is a legal requirement to consider the health and safety of employees but do not realise this extends to their broader wellbeing, and specifically mental health wellbeing.
In legislation, considering employee health and wellbeing is often described as having a ‘duty of care.’ But as health and safety expert Malcolm Tullett vehemently states in his book Risk it: How to use your intuition to revolutionise risk taking:
Care is not just a duty.
We should care about our employees because, well, they are our employees, and therefore we care about them. Just as we care about our friends and family and not because it is our duty to do so.
Nonetheless, it is important the legislation is adhered to.
All employers with five or more employees should have a written health and safety policy and risk assessments that are relevant not just to employees, but any other people who could be affected by company activities.
Even if you have one employee or work with contractors, it is worth starting as you mean to go on and ensure such policies are in place, remembering that ‘workplace’ means anywhere a person usually works, which may also include their own home.
I believe it has been one of the positive outcomes of the pandemic that more employers have accepted that allowing their people to work from home can be mutually beneficial, despite the UK government’s subsequent messaging post lockdowns that they want employees to stop working from home and return to the office.
For some employers, allowing their people to work from home permanently has become the norm, although a greater percentage have adopted a hybrid working model. But this does not work for everyone. Some people just do not have the proper facilities or struggle with isolation. Or perhaps they have other challenges and cope better in the social and supportive environment colleagues can provide.
Mike and I have worked together in our home office for nearly 20 years, and I love it. But, in fairness, our house is big enough to accommodate a proper working environment, we don’t have children or any other dependents at home to worry about, and we are quite happy being together 24/7. Well, most of the time. We are not immune to the odd squabble!
In response to a more permanent move to working from home, the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) has introduced new legislation which emphasises that if the home environment is not suitable, or cannot be made suitable, and the employee cannot be reasonably protected, they should not be asked to work from home.
Communicating with your employees about health and wellbeing
The key to protecting the health and wellbeing of employees is culture, communication and training.
If an honest, open and trustworthy culture is a genuine way of being that is embedded throughout the company rather than just a ‘policy’, many potential challenges will be automatically averted. But for this to be truly the case, care needs to be taken to ensure that people are employed based on matching values, and team leaders are trained in the skill of empathy because, as training and leadership coach Bruna Martinuzzi says:
Empathy is the oil that keeps relationships running smoothly.
Nonetheless, more needs to be done to proactively support the wellbeing of your people both at a whole company level and individual focus.
Ongoing training for all staff is imperative. Training can and should take the form of skills training and self-development training, both of which will help ensure staff are capable of accomplishing the requirements of their role and provide them with the potential to progress in their careers.
Training can take many forms from formal external workshops, onsite courses, and on-the-job training. It does not need to be expensive.
Naturally, induction training is essential and should include familiarisation with the job role, deeper discussions about the company’s culture, and appropriate information about policies, including health and safety, all of which should ensure the employee knows exactly what is expected of them. If possible, ensure all relevant company policies are readily accessible online. Give your new employees plenty of time to read and absorb the documentation, ensure that they have done so, and encourage them to ask questions if there is anything they are unsure about.
In terms of legislation, all employees should have written contracts of employment and written disciplinary and grievance policies should be in place. And from the minute you take on your first employee, you must ensure you have Employer’s Liability Insurance and set up a Workplace Pension Scheme.
Having more comprehensive HR policies in place can seem unduly onerous, but the clarity they afford can make life much less complicated as minor behavioural issues often create the biggest tensions. For example, company policies relating to mobile phone use, social media and even cigarette breaks might not initially appear to be the most essential policies to have in place, but why wait until there is a problem before you consider and document what your company policies are?
Good communication and clarity at an early stage can avoid many future ‘misunderstandings’, but there also needs to be a more formal structure around staff appraisals, for example. I’ll hastily add that these appraisals should not be akin to many corporate practices where the primary purpose is measuring performance against KPIs (Key Performance Indicators.) Such appraisals often cause significant stress leading up to the event and how they are conducted.
Staff appraisals should be a mutually positive experience. They should be part of a healthy relationship between employees and managers rather than what might feel like a rather officious affair. And perhaps most importantly, a good line manager will realise if one of the team is not performing well this, in the majority of cases, is an indicator that the employee has a problem which may be internal or external. That should be the time for a discussion rather than waiting for an ‘official’ six-monthly or annual appraisal. But the discussion must be along the lines of empathy, support and finding solutions rather than finger-pointing and blame.
Fair pay, employee benefits
Every employer, however small the company, is legally required to have at minimum a suitably stocked first-aid kit, an appointed person to take charge of first-aid arrangements, and the details of such arrangements provided to all employees. According to the size of the company and the risk levels, you may be required to have a trained first-aider.
Similarly, consider the benefits of mental health first-aider training for yourself and all managers, even at a very early stage. It is not a legal requirement, although it is a recommendation. But stress is such a common health issue, and regardless of how that stress is caused, mental health first-aider training will make a tremendous difference in recognising the symptoms and offering appropriate support.
Both first-aider and mental health first-aider training will provide transferable skills that can be hugely beneficial outside the workplace.
Time, cost and physical restraints will limit what a micro business can offer its people in terms of health and wellbeing initiatives. Nonetheless, there is much that can be done for even the smallest business. And that includes looking after yourself if you are a solopreneur.
The same applies to benefits you may offer employees. Millennials are less likely to be impressed by a shiny salary package than by an organisation’s culture. Consider, therefore, if possible, the type of benefits that extol company values, such as:
- Flexible or hybrid working
- Cycle-to-work schemes
- Volunteering options
- Holiday trading schemes
- Environmental or community focus groups
- Salary sacrifice schemes.
At the very minimum, you should aim to pay the UK Living Wage as set by the Living Wage Foundation. For employees aged 23+, this is slightly higher than the National Living Wage set by the government, but the rate also comes into force for employees over 18, whereas the NLW has reduced rates for 18-20- and 21-22-year-olds. Additionally, the UK Living Wage includes a London weighting.
However, I do recognise that even that is not possible in certain circumstances.
As an example, Joan (not her real name), the CEO of a flourishing enterprise agency, was achieving fantastic results in her local town by negotiating with landlords to take empty properties and set them up as hubs for small businesses, resulting in a growing number of start-ups and a vibrant high street. Some of these developments included community cafés, enabling the agency to offer employment, training and support to various groups of people. Joan spoke about a young man employed at one such café and said she could only pay him the minimum wage because the café would be running at a loss otherwise. Hence, she compensated in as many other ways as she possibly could. As he was 19, that basic rate was then £3.07 per hour less than he would have received on a Living Wage basis.
Sometimes, we have no option but to cut our cloth according to the situation. Most people agree that genuine appreciation for a job well done, sometimes just manifesting in a simple ‘thank you’, is often worth more than a financial reward. And if finances are challenging, staff will invariably not expect more than that. Once again, communication is key.
Micro and small businesses do it best
However, there is a vast difference between paying someone at a lower rate and trying to compensate in other ways because circumstances dictate the necessity of doing so, than paying the lowest legal rate purely to reduce overheads and increase profits. That situation is particularly unpalatable when senior executives are taking excessive salary packages.
Taking advantage of funded schemes or lower-paid options such as apprenticeships is acceptable if you are genuinely training the employee and providing them with appropriate skill sets to support their future career development, and with the intention of employing them at the end of the scheme if possible, rather than blatantly using such employees as cheap labour.
According to The Equality Trust, CEOs in the UK’s top 100 companies enjoy an average salary of £5.3m each year, an astounding 386 times that of an adult earning the National Living Wage.
Now I know many small business owners probably earn less than the National Living Wage if you fully consider all the hours worked, and most will probably never aspire to an annual salary in excess of even £200k. Nonetheless, considering what you pay yourself and ensuring it is not excessive in comparison to the salaries of your lowest paid workers is something any ethical business owner should take seriously.
Most do. Many pay their employees more than they earn themselves. And that is yet another reason why micro and small businesses should be celebrated and supported.
If this post chimes with you and your approach to business, consider applying for membership of ORB or looking at our Responsible Business Standard course and certification options.
Jill Poet, CEO of ORB
Jill Poet’s new book, ‘It Really Just Is Good Business’, introduces a different way of doing business – a better way! A way that combines profitability with embedded ethics and values.
In today’s society, customers increasingly want more than good products and services. They want to know that your company cares about people which in turn means caring about the environment. It may not be the primary consideration for everyone, but it can certainly be the deciding factor in most cases.
Running a responsible business also means having appropriate systems to ensure operational efficiency, reduce risk, and meet and exceed legislation.
By adopting Jill’s pragmatic, broad-based, holistic approach to responsible business, your company will flourish and be more profitable and sustainable for the longer term.