What does a healthy, successful business mean to you? Making a profit?
A committed client-base? Healthy, happy, productive staff? For many employers, the last option doesn't always make the list - indeed, many employers do not see the health of their employees as any of their business, making a clear separation between the ‘work' and ‘personal' worlds.

The reality is however that employee health and wellbeing affects every business, and needs to be on the agenda of every successful modern business owner.

One in every three employees has at least one long-term health condition which might be affecting their work. Whatever the nature of their poor health - be it stress-related (stress being one of the main causes of sickness absence) or physical strain, or due to a condition unrelated to work - health can affect an individual's ability to perform their role, causing them to be absent or less productive, or forcing them to leave their job altogether. Most, if not all employers will find themselves working with someone with a mental or physical health condition at some point, or indeed will experience such a problem themselves.

As one challenge among many in running a small business, employee health can take a back seat for small business owners. Finding the time to be proactive about employee health, or taking time away from everyday operations to learn more about it, can feel unrealistic. The picture is often very different for larger businesses, where managers are more able to attend training, have dedicated staff, or even buy in-house occupational health support to help prevent or manage poor health among their employees. The reality is that too often employee health is not seen as an issue until an employee becomes so unwell they are unable to do their job, by which time it might be too late to manage. The effect on both the employee and the business can be devastating, presenting considerable challenges for employers. However, with the right support, the impact of employee ill-health on work can be minimised or alleviated altogether.

Healthier staff that feel looked after by their employer are more engaged, and better able to perform well. Long-term staff absence is expensive, both because of the need to pay sick pay (the recent loss of the statutory percentage threshold scheme means that small businesses are no longer compensated for employee sickness absence) and because of the possible need to take on temporary cover. However it is often the immediate impact of staff ill-health - being unable to cover employees who have called in sick that day - that provides more compelling reasons for small business employers to support and manage employee health effectively. The pressure of covering for service-critical staff even for short periods may fall to other already stretched staff, including the business owner themselves.

Given the implications sickness absence can have for a business, it is not uncommon for employees to come into work when they really should be off sick. This may seem good for business in the short-term, but such behaviour presents its own problems. Staff who attend work while they are sick are less productive, and by not taking steps to support and manage their health in the first place it is more likely their condition will become more difficult to manage further down the line.

Fortunately there are some relatively simple, low or no-cost steps that an SME owner-manager can take to support the health of their workforce. Initiatives such as the Workplace Wellbeing Charter, which is locally run (usually through the local authority), provide free toolkits to help small businesses develop and audit their health and wellbeing support, begin to identify gaps, and create improvement plans. Some local authorities also run their own schemes, and will be able to advise on what support is available. Lancaster University's Work Foundation's report, ‘This Won't Hurt a Bit: Supporting small business to be healthy, wealthy and wise', highlights examples of businesses that have used these services and derived benefits going beyond employee health: for example, in gaining accreditation that is attractive to potential clients.

On a day-to-day basis, helping an employee to manage their health might simply be about making sure employees feel able to discuss their health or other stresses at work. For others it might mean making sure employees are able to attend medical appointments, allowing some flexibility in working hours or providing temporary support with certain work tasks.

These type of ‘reasonable adjustments' to the work are often valued by employees, and are associated with helping people to stay in work. Though most adjustments are free or cost very little, others, such as assistance with travel when someone has a physical health condition or an anxiety-related condition, or physical adjustments to a workplace, may be more costly. In such cases, employees might be able to get financial support from the Access to Work scheme, which also provides advice on workplace adjustments. Free advice on individual employees or on occupational health in general is also available through the government's Fit for Work service. Employers can refer their employees to Fit for Work themselves if they have been absent for at least four weeks, while GPs may make a referral sooner.

Supporting employers, of all shapes and sizes, to support their employees to remain healthy and productive is an important challenge for the health sector, and for UK productivity. Employers can play an important role in raising awareness of the issue and applying pressure for improving support services. Talking to your fellow small business owners about health at work and what is available is an important first step. But we also need to know more about the challenges small businesses face in providing support, and what would help them to do more. You could think about raising these issues with businesses services such as your local Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses or Local Enterprise Partnerships. Our report suggests that getting business services involved with health and wellbeing is key to providing services that a large number of small businesses  use and find useful, and owners themselves can further the case for this by clearly demonstrating their understanding of the issue as something that is crucial to their business's success.

Ultimately, the business case for small business owners supporting the health and wellbeing of their workers is clear, and the benefits of this - for both employers and employees - are substantial.

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