A big question to come out of the pandemic is whether small to midsize enterprises (SMEs) are doing enough to respond to the workforce’s increased mental wellbeing needs. As our survey discovered, many Human Resources (HR) teams and employers could do a lot more.
In this article
As we saw in our previous piece, which looked at how workplace wellbeing has changed since the pandemic for UK SME workers, positive mental health among our survey respondents has fallen by 14 percentage points since the onset of the pandemic.
This was not, however, reflected by a large increase in resources provided to staff.
In this article, we look in-depth at how British companies provide their workers with support to promote positive mental hygiene. We examined the experience that over 1,000 UK SME staff had with company-provided wellbeing resources and whether workplace assistance was effective when it was supplied. You can find our full methodology at the end of the article.
Are SMEs falling short on mental health support?
Overall, the results found in our survey didn’t paint a positive picture of how companies had reacted to the employee mental health challenges caused by the pandemic.
71% of the respondents to the survey reported that they had received no mental health resources at all from their company during the last two years.
However, despite the lack of mental health help available for the majority of our survey participants, the employees who did receive support from their company (29%) reported that they were overall satisfied with the provisions offered.
91% of these respondents said they were either “somewhat” or “very satisfied” with the help offered internally in their company. Only 7% were left somewhat unsatisfied and 2% reported being very unsatisfied with their company’s mental health resources.
It seems a lack of mental health resources is an ongoing problem in the British workforce. Our own findings echo a 2019 Business in the Community (BITC) survey, which discovered that 70% of managers faced barriers to providing mental health support.
This, therefore, appears to indicate that the lack of resources companies provide is part of a longer-term issue. It also suggests that despite increased awareness and a decline in workplace mental health, companies still have much work to do to alleviate these gaps in their mental wellness support structures.
How did managers respond to workplace mental health concerns?
Since the start of the pandemic, around 18% of those surveyed in our research directly reported a mental health concern in the workplace to a manager or decision-maker in their company. Employers responded to this group in a number of ways.
The majority of managers (55%) took time to listen to staff to understand their challenges and what could be done to help them. Another 30% offered staff time off, whilst 18% made arrangements to reduce their workload.
Only a very small number (4%) referred a member of their workforce to a doctor directly. However, most surprisingly, 16% didn’t do anything at all to respond to the needs of a member of staff struggling with mental health problems.
Whilst it is clear to see that many employers offer a direct and supportive solution to staff mental health concerns, there was almost a fifth that were unresponsive to these issues. This could be for many reasons. For example, some may simply not acknowledge the matter or could lack sufficient training or resources such as mental health software to assist.
Culture, belonging & wellness specialist Tara Birch explains how employers can address mental health matters with staff effectively and why this is essential:
Employees benefit most from genuine connections and empathetic leadership. Once you have respect and trust, you build engagement.
To be effective you need to provide options, as there is no one-stop-shop or quick-fix solution —we are all very different beings with different needs.
Did employees feel their needs were met?
The majority of workers who reached out to their employers for mental health support were positive about the help they received.
When asked whether their company’s reaction was helpful, 42% said they found the assistance very helpful and another 38% reported that it was somewhat helpful.
Nevertheless, 18% said the support they received was unhelpful and another 2% found the help harmful.
On balance, this suggests that a direct response from companies on mental health matters makes a positive difference to workers who are struggling. Whilst it can require time and resources to implement, it makes a key difference.
Do employees feel comfortable discussing mental health at work?
A concerning finding was that many UK SME employees (36%) would not discuss their mental health condition with a superior at work, preferring instead to seek outside help.
It also appeared that employers in many cases were not proactively dealing with workplace mental wellbeing. This was seen in 11% of our respondents, who suffered from a mental ailment and were not asked about their issues.
This was also reflected by the fact that around a quarter (23%) of employees surveyed admitted to not feeling comfortable talking about their mental health concerns with their employers.
This is despite the fact another 30% would raise the issue with their line manager, 5% with an HR professional and another 23% would discuss it with a colleague.
These findings seem to show that even when experiencing a mental health issue, British workers are still somewhat reticent about raising the subject in the workplace.
A similar pattern was also observed in Gartner’s research on mental and emotional wellbeing offerings in 2021 (full content available to Gartner clients), where it was found that only 49% of corporate associates who were aware of company mental health support would actively use the options provided.
How did SMEs inform their staff about mental health programs?
The 29% of employees that did receive company provided mental health resources highlighted a number of different ways that they received information about these assets.
When asked how their company informed them of internally provided mental health help, respondents reported they received information via the following methods:
- Emails (66%)
- In-person meetings (39%)
- Printed materials (24%)
- Virtual workshops (18%)
- Virtual learning platforms (15%)
- During onboarding (12%)
- Other (1%)
These results indicate that the majority of employers take a more passive approach to communicate with their staff about company mental health support. However, there was also a large number who focused on a more personalised method to share these resources.
Lack of social connection with colleagues
In our last article we observed that connection to company culture had become worse for 23% of our survey participants.
It was therefore interesting to note the results we saw on how often companies organised social activities either in-person or online.
The frequency of company social events reported by our survey sample showed that companies hosted activities with the following frequency (due to rounding, the sum of percentages is higher than 100%):
- Once a week (3%)
- Every other week (5%)
- Once a month (14%)
- Once a quarter (19%)
- Twice a year (13%)
- Once a year (20%)
- Never (27%)
This seems to show that company-organised events have been very limited overall, at least during the two-plus years of the COVID-19 pandemic so far. Whilst this might have been expected from in-person social events, it is more surprising to see so few employers embracing regular online activities as a replacement.
Whilst the pandemic can be blamed for the drop in company engagement in part, the lack of a plan to provide suitable technological solutions such as employee engagement software and meeting software may have also proven costly for the internal culture in many companies.
The most-valued wellbeing resources according to SME workers
Our study found that SME employees had a few strong preferences in the ways that their employers should engage with mental health concerns.
When asked for their opinions on company-offered mental health resources, respondents rated the following as very valuable:
- Flexible work schedule (44%)
- Mental health days (36%)
- Access to a trustperson, such as an employee support specialist (24%)
- Access to a complaints commission (20%)
This seems to demonstrate that working-time flexibility and the chance to be heard matter most to UK workers when it comes to mental health support.
On the other hand, options such as access to yoga classes (rated very valuable by 13%) and nutritional wellness programs (rated very valuable by 14%) were not regarded as highly for their usefulness.
Do SMEs prioritise employee mental health?
Whilst the majority of SME employees (74%) believed their companies assigned a high or moderate priority to workplace mental health, 1 in 4 (26%) thought it was a low or non-priority for their employers.
This appears to indicate that whilst most SME employees in the UK think that their companies dedicate importance to mental health in the work environment there is still a significant number that feels mental health isn’t taken very seriously by businesses.
Overall, this suggests companies should make an effort to ensure they dedicate time and resources to support positive mental health at work.
The most important tip I have for companies concerning mental health is to take it seriously —very seriously. Listen to your people. Invest in your people —they are your greatest asset. They are your superpower and the key to your business, brand, and bottom line.
What can companies do to support mental health?
There are lots of little ways that companies can simplify the process of responding to mental health concerns.
- Encourage open conversation with staff
- Make it clear support is available
- Provide good working conditions
- Ensure a healthy work-life balance
- Offer learning and development opportunities
- Take a proactive approach to monitoring workplace mental health
The NHS estimates that 1 in 4 adults will suffer from a mental health problem during their working lives. Therefore, the stakes for not providing sufficient support for workplace mental wellness cannot be underestimated.
At present, it appears there’s still much that companies can do to address this issue.
Businesses should therefore take note of the key takeaways of this report:
- Many UK SME employees are still reluctant to discuss mental health in the workplace
- Most participants found workplace mental health support helpful when it was offered
- 1 in 4 employees believes their company doesn’t prioritise mental health
Data for GetApp’s Mental Health Among SMEs Since COVID-19 survey was collected in February 2022. Results comprise responses from 1,031 UK participants. The criteria to be selected for this study is as follows:
- UK resident
- Aged over 18 years old and under 65 years old
- Employed by a company with under 250 employees
- Working as either a full-time or part-time employee
- Has not changed jobs between January 2020 and February 2022