According to the Federation of Small Businesses, 60% of all private sector employment in the UK in 2017 was with Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs). If the nation’s productivity is dependent on the wellbeing of our workforce, shouldn’t this therefore be top of the agenda for SMEs? Seems to make sense, yet many SMEs struggle to prioritise wellbeing.

In advance of the inaugural Mad World Summit we took some time to get Matthew Carlton’s take on this issue. Matthew is the founder and principal consultant at Shine Workplace Wellbeing, a start-up offering all-encompassing wellbeing services to companies – particularly SMEs – that appreciate their employees’ wellbeing, but perhaps don’t know where to start when it comes to delivering such initiatives. Matthew is also an advisory board member of Mad World.

First, from the work you have been doing with SMEs, what would you say are the main obstacles that stop them from prioritising workplace mental health and wellbeing?

In a lot of cases, the intention is there and they know it is an area they should be allocating time and resources to. But given that a lot of smaller firms are often working at capacity, it can drop down the priority list, or there’s never a good time to focus on it – unless, unfortunately, a business is reacting to a long term absence when an employee has suffered a mental health problem.

Some decision makers still need convincing that introducing a wellbeing scheme will have a ROI and isn’t a ‘fluffy’ fad, but there’s growing evidence now to support the business case. It certainly makes sense when you compare the cost of implementing a scheme to losing an employee for a prolonged period due to work-related stress / mental ill-health.

When it comes specifically to mental health, what advice can you give to SMEs?

Firstly, there’s no one size fits all, and policies must be devised with careful consideration around the nature of the business, likely levels and causes of stress, attitude of staff towards the subject, and the range of roles and responsibilities. But there are elements that can apply to all businesses, regardless of sector and size.

Senior management buy in is crucial – and this must filter down to middle management. It cannot be a tick box exercise because suddenly it’s fashionable to talk about mental health – policies must be robust and have substance. And we encourage businesses to be proactive with policies – don’t wait until you’ve experienced an employee take time off due to mental ill-health before acting.

We work with Time to Change which produces some great resources to reduce the stigma around workplace mental health issues. As a starting point, simple things like placing posters in communal areas can normalise the subject, and setting aside an area where staff know they can read more about mental health – be it a physical space or on an intranet site – are encouraged. It’s important staff know how to stay ‘mental healthy’ – and how factors such as physical activity, diet, and sleep play a huge part in maintaining a positive mental health level.

However, should a company and an employee be faced with a problem resulting in a prolonged absence from work, we encourage the use of certain toolkits to manage the return to work process. Finally, we also encourage senior management to speak openly about workplace mental health – and to encourage staff to do likewise – which helps reduce any stigma surrounding the topic.

I’m intrigued by how you came to be working in wellbeing. Your background prior to Shine Workplace Wellbeing was marketing – why the switch?

In recent years I came into contact with more businesses through freelance and project work and saw teams where employee engagement was championed, and conversely when it was woefully neglected. There’s obviously so much more energy and enthusiasm among teams with the former, and staff wellbeing became an area I became more interested in (and applied it to teams I managed).

To cut a long story short, I embarked on a career change and decided to offer an encompassing wellbeing service to companies that care about their employees’ wellbeing but need some guidance in this area.

You also have strong physical health background – how important a role do you think it plays in mental health?

A huge role, it cannot be underestimated. Exercise is, in my opinion, a wonder drug. It’s one of the most effective ways to improve mental health, relieves stress, helps you sleep better and boosts mood. So many studies highlight its benefits to ward off mental illness but many physical illnesses too. Personally, it’s my ‘therapy’. If I’m regularly exercising I feel in such a better place mentally than if I’ve had a period of inactivity.

But returning to my second answer, I would not insist that everyone should go for a 5k run everyday to help their mental health. For one person, yoga may be their gateway to enhanced mental wellness, or it may be singing or mindfulness, both of which have been found to enhance wellbeing. That’s why we discourage businesses from forcing ‘wellbeing’ activities.

Just because the CEO finds mindfulness their way to get some peace of mind, it doesn’t mean the finance manager will. So facilitate those who already know what helps them to relieve stress, and for those that don’t already know this, enable them to explore some options. In the medium-to-long term, the majority will thank you for it either directly and / or via enhanced performance, increased loyalty, and their general goodwill to the business and their colleagues.

What are you looking forward to at Mad World?

Hearing and learning from some of the fantastic speakers and absorbing some of the insights and advice they share. While a lot of content at Mad World will focus on larger businesses, I believe many practices can still be applied to smaller and growing businesses. Two of the track sessions have particularly caught my eye: “Moving from the ‘why’ to the ‘how’” and “The disruptors: creating a work environment that enables employees to thrive”. They are on my ‘must attend’ list.

Finally, where do you think we need more fresh thinking for the future of workplace wellbeing?

Within Government and the business-related departments. It’s reassuring to know the Government are allocating resources to understanding wellbeing and the factors that contribute to this. If it became mandatory for businesses over a certain size to have an employee wellbeing policy (like they have to do with a health and safety policy) then that’s a good start. Hopefully then the benefits will become more obvious to those that aren’t yet convinced in the business community.

In general, more should be done to raise awareness of what affects our mental health and wellbeing. The importance of a balanced diet, rest, good sleep, exercise etc. should be highlighted to all. While many of us working in this space will take this understanding for granted, it still surprises me that a lot of people are unfamiliar with what factors influence their wellbeing.

Claire Farrow is the Conference Director for Mad World.  

Mad World is Europe’s only event that puts mental health at the heart of the business agenda. Be inspired by those that are leading the way; source the right solutions for your organisation; and share ideas and experiences.

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