By Linda Levesque, HR Director, Unum

Many small businesses excel when it comes to looking after their staff. With a fewer number of employees, communication between colleagues is often both easier and more regular, and working relationships are typically more close-knit than in larger organisations. In addition, senior managers in small businesses often work directly with their colleagues across all levels, so can see firsthand if employees are struggling or excelling.

However, they do not always have the right health and wellbeing programmes in place to support the needs of the individual, or the wider workforce as a whole. Recent research by Unum into the level of health and wellbeing strategies in place across businesses, found that just a quarter (28%) of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) offer health programmes to staff, compared to almost two thirds (62%) of large companies.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, smaller companies do not have the kind of budgets at their disposal as their larger counterparts in order to put in place best practice benefits packages, and many do not have a HR department or dedicated HR manager to help oversee this. But even so, there are a number of straightforward steps that SMEs can take to help protect the health and wellbeing of their employees.

Why offer health and wellbeing programmes?

Wellbeing at work is increasingly a priority for employees, who now look beyond salaries to what benefits and wellbeing programmes are available, such as flexible working policies, or pension schemes. As competition for top talent at large companies is fierce, such initiatives are crucial to attracting and retaining talent, and will therefore be prioritised.

The monetary implications of not implementing the right health and wellbeing programmes for small to medium companies stands at an average of £3,000 a year for those with 5-249 employees. This may not sound like a vast sum, however small businesses are more likely to feel the pressure if an employee is suffering from long-term illness, because the workforce is smaller and therefore the impact of someone being off sick is greater. They are also more vulnerable to financial pressures, making it difficult to deal with unexpected costs like sickness absence.

Implementing a health and wellbeing programme

Health and wellbeing programmes should be based around three pillars: prevention, intervention and protection. Initiatives such as subsidised gym membership, stress awareness workshops or ergonomic desk assessments fall into the prevention category, and should be introduced to help build a healthy and happy workforce and hopefully stop issues developing. Intervention, in the form of an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or rehabilitation support can help deal with any issues before they become more serious.

Finally, companies should put protection measures in place for employees should they need to take time off from work due to ill health, through services such as Income Protection. This provides employees with a replacement income if they’re off work for more than six months with long term illness, and providing savings to the business on Occupational Sick Pay and other indirect costs.

What small businesses should offer

To become an employer of choice, SMEs need to understand and adapt to their employees’ needs. Offering health and wellbeing programmes is a crucial part of this, and looking at the demographics of your workforce will help inform decisions about which measures are most valuable.. Factors such as age and family situation can have a significant impact - consider offering support for those caring for ageing relatives or more flexible working for those juggling work with a young family.

Having invested in health and wellbeing programmes, small businesses need to regularly communicate to staff what is available. According to recent research by Unum, larger companies are better than small businesses at demonstrating to staff what their benefits are worth (36% and 20% respectively). Employers also need to be more creative with their communications, using a variety of methods and times to get the information across. Simply sending an email or having an annual benefits window is not enough.