The “work-hard, play-hard” era is now in fast decline, but a culture of work-overload, rapid organisational change and lack of social support in the workplace seemingly persists. All of this can take a considerable toll on mental well-being.
So how can owners and managers of small businesses learn to spot the signs of stress, both in themselves and their staff, and implement measures to deal with it?
In SMEs, teams are particularly vulnerable to the effects of stress. According to a recent survey of 1,000 SME bosses by the bank Aldermore, one in three small business owners has suffered from anxiety or depression in the past five years.
Whether it is at the leadership level or throughout the business, when just one person has to be absent with a stress-related condition the pressure then multiplies for the remaining employees.
Spotting the signs of stress
According to Dr Barbara Mariposa, mental health lead at Work Well Being, people generally react to stress in one of three ways.
They may push on, where the adrenalin rush of working under pressure sees them become irritable and critical. They may slow down, becoming withdrawn and compensating with a damaging overindulgence of whatever relieves their negative feelings. Or they may simply put on a brave face, trying to give the impression that nothing is wrong but relying on this mask to conceal their anxiety.
“A good manager will notice subtle changes such as these and, rather than judging, will ask, listen, understand and support,” she says. “This alone will make people feel more able, will relieve stress and foster trust and respect.”
While most small companies do not have the benefit of a dedicated HR team, less formal approaches to dealing with stress can prove very effective.
“Monthly, one-to-one sessions with a designated in-house mentor, where stress levels are specifically addressed, as well as regular well-being questionnaires, can help identify issues and enable bosses to monitor stress patterns in employees,” says health coach Suzy Glaskie, founder of Peppermint Wellness.
Build models for monitoring and supporting staff
However, small business owners also need to implement more formal processes for keeping track of mental health. These can include support around broad issues of mental health, and strategies for managing performance conversations about stress.
“The key measures for stress mitigation and management in the workplace centre around staff productivity levels, staff turnover, recruitment and training costs, and presenteeism,” says Marc Caulfield, chief executive of Demolish The Wall, a consultancy that helps organisations deal with mental health issues.
“All these should be benchmarked and measured on a regular basis to track improvements. Psychometric-based analysis is a proven method to benchmark workplace stress levels.”
Practical steps to minimize stress
Traditional working hours, still sacrosanct in some small businesses, are increasingly being seen as outmoded by employers. Thanks to digital technology, more people are able to work wherever is most effective for them – whether that is at home, at their desk, or somewhere else entirely.
“Too many businesses still insist on being in the office, but free food and beanbags don’t really cut the mustard,” says Mr Caulfield. “Someone suffering from anxiety or stress may reasonably want different working hours, as commuting could be their idea of hell.”
Something as simple as the office layout can be adapted to give people more choice in the way they work, with a mix of break-out areas, more formal seating areas and some chill-out spaces that are deemed “safe” where people can destress.
“This would give everyone the right kind of space for them and I suspect you would see absenteeism decline and productivity increase,” notes Mr Caulfield.
Many small business owners have learnt from some of their own unhealthy working practices in the past to help employees keep stress levels to a minimum. Mike Smith, director at companydebt.com, admits that “work hard, play hard” was the motto when he started out and it led to burnouts, divorces and problems with alcohol.
“Now, as a director, I am thinking a lot more closely about my team’s well-being,” he says. “Not just because I care about them, but it also makes sound economic sense. We are always on the lookout for signs of stress in team members, whether that be more sick days, a shorter temper or decreased performance.”
The company promotes a culture of mindfulness for staff, encouraging them to take time out to sit quietly, as well as adopting ways of working and engaging with each other that focus on task completion rather than the frenetic multi-tasking that can be so prevalent today.
Lead by example
Talking openly and regularly about stress, encouraging team members to look after themselves, is the most effective and low-cost way of tackling workplace stress.
And owners and managers of small businesses must lead by example, says Rob O’Donovan, chief executive and co-founder of CharlieHR.
“As company founders we don’t send our team emails at 3am, and we invest in ourselves to ensure we are mentally fit for the business,” he explains.
“Stress has a big impact on the health and productivity of a small team; as a leader you should do everything possible to create a healthy working environment. A positive push for wellness across the board can deliver phenomenal results.”