In 2015 mental health continued to be top of the agenda for many businesses. With 1 in 4 people now experiencing some kind of mental health condition, this is having a big impact on the workplace. It is causing over 70 million working days to be lost each year, costing the UK economy some £1.17 billion.

Poor mental health can put particular pressure on smaller businesses. The workforce is smaller, the impact of even one employee experiencing poor mental health is greater. Smaller businesses are also more vulnerable to financial pressures, making it difficult to deal with the large unexpected cost of mental health related absence.

The end of the year provides the perfect opportunity to review current strategies and support around mental health, to think about what has been successful in 2015 and what the priorities need to be the priority in 2016. So, how can SMEs improve mental health in the workplace and mitigate some of these risks, especially without large budgets to invest in wellbeing?

Broadly speaking, any strategy should include measures to promote good mental health, and prevent issues arising in the first place; intervening at the first sign of a problem, before it develops into something more serious; and providing the right protection to reduce the impact of longer-term absence.


The starting point for any business looking to improve the mental wellbeing of their employees is creating an open and caring culture where employees feel comfortable raising issues. This needs to start from the top. Having a concrete Mental Health Policy reassures employees that their wellbeing is a priority, and if senior people in the business are speaking out on the issue, perhaps even drawing on their own experience, then this attitude will trickle down to managers and staff. If your organisation doesn’t currently have a Mental Health Policy in place, you can find lots of useful templates online which can serve as a useful starting point, for example this simple template from HeadsUp.

There is lots that can be done to encourage workplace wellbeing on the ground, often for little or no cost. For example, using staff meetings and newsletters to raise awareness of mental health issues, encouraging staff to take a lunch-break, having a power down hour, or starting a walking club. This need not cost anything, with many charities also providing advice and resources around specific health and wellbeing issues free of charge.

Regular staff surveys are also a quick and easy way to take a temperature check on wellbeing and see whether the company culture is having a positive or negative effect on mental wellbeing. The results of these surveys can also help to put mental health on the board agenda and provide a point of discussion about what the company might do to address stress points in the organisation.


When problems do arise, it is important the right steps are taken to prevent them developing into something more serious. As managers are usually responsible for flagging and monitoring potential problems, it is important that they are trained and equipped to spot the signs that staff might be experiencing a problem and start a conversation about it to tackle issues early. For example, at Unum, we offer stress awareness training to help managers and their teams to manage the impact of stress, while Mental Health First Aid England offers a training programme to teach managers how to identify, understand, and help a person who may be developing a mental health problem.

Allowing flexible working and taking measures to accommodate for staff working from home can also help during a period of stress or worry. Coming in to the office could aggravate mental health problems in certain cases so it can help to provide the option to work from home if an employee needs to be in more relaxed surroundings.

Employers should also check what early intervention services might be provided as part of their employee benefits package. For example, an Employee Assistance Programme can provide additional support for staff if they’re having difficulties inside or outside the workplace, and offer a range of services from counselling through to legal advice. Existing providers may also be able to provide resources and advice on which support is most suitable.


In cases when an employee does need to take time off work due to poor mental health, protection to mitigate the impact of sickness absence is also crucial. For example, Income Protection pays employees a replacement income if they are off work for more than 6 months, and also comes with vocational rehabilitation services to support them if they are able to return to work.

Mental health is not an issue small businesses can afford to ignore. A robust wellbeing strategy which looks at prevention, intervention and protection can make a big difference when it comes to improving mental health and in turn delivers tangible benefits to any business. A healthier, happier workforce is more loyal, more productive, and will help future-proof your business in the long-term.

By Joy Reymond, Head of Vocational Rehabilitation Services at Unum