By Daniel Hunter

Stress had a noticeable impact on businesses in 2012, according to more than two fifths (42%) of senior managers from small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) surveyed for global insurer Zurich's latest quarterly SME Risk Index.

More than 500 decision-makers from British SMEs were polled by YouGov for the Index, which indicates that the negative effect of stress levels, low morale and staff absence could be set to continue unless the economic environment improves. 29% of SMEs polled state that these issues are having a negative impact on overall business performance.

According to a fifth (19%) of SMEs surveyed, workforce absence levels have risen over the past two years, with 12% reporting more short-term stress-related absences of less than four weeks in the last year.

And when the results for small (10-49 employees) and medium-sized (50-249 employees) enterprises are looked at separately, absence levels for the past two years are up by 27% for small companies and 30% for medium ones, suggesting that the impact of stress on absence could be an increasing worry as businesses become larger and more established.

A quarter (25%) of SMEs surveyed also reported lower morale amongst their employees due to workforce stress in 2012, with this again rising to 27% & 39% amongst small and medium businesses respectively.

With almost half (47%) of British SMEs claiming to face more risk at present compared to last year, the impact of such pressures on the small business workforce is becoming apparent.

However there is some optimism about the year ahead, with the prospect of a stronger economic environment (33%) and expansion of business in the UK (29%) being cited as the two biggest opportunities for 2013.

“These figures are strong evidence that addressing workforce challenges and risks is an essential part of achieving better performance and greater growth for British small businesses," Richard Coleman, Director of SME at Zurich Insurance said.

"It is perhaps not surprising that the fragile business climate has had such an impact on workforce stress and morale, and if these issues aren't addressed they could have serious long-term consequences for business stability and performance.

“Its people are the lifeblood of any business, regardless of size, and looking after them by ensuring that stress levels are balanced and morale is kept high is vital if a company is going to attract the most skilled employees and retain existing talent. Companies that do this will be best positioned to take advantage of future improvements in the economic environment.”

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