SME mental health: a good job, well done!

Ian MacArthur, director of the Greater Manchester Good Employment Charter

Ian has spent his career working on environmental and public health issues, from community to international levels. Starting his career as an environmental health officer with Carlisle City Council, he's since held various operational and leadership roles including for the Health and Safety Executive and the World Health Organisation.

It was a pleasure to take part in the recent Acas roundtable discussion that explored the mental health landscape within small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Of course, being gainfully employed has been long thought of as a key social determinant of health and wellbeing. And there can be no doubt that having a job is much better for you than being unemployed. In many ways 'working' in that sense goes beyond just earning an income. It can provide a sense of worth, purpose and contributing to something bigger.

However, the past 20 months or so, as we first responded to and then learned to live with coronavirus (COVID-19), has placed a new level of scrutiny on that assumption. Our experience has highlighted the importance of having 'good work' where terms and conditions focus on supporting individual employees' health and wellbeing – but also support public health more generally.

The Greater Manchester Good Employment Charter has been established with a clear agenda to set out what good employment should feel like and to build a movement of good employment to address poor conditions and celebrate best practice. We've defined 'good work' through 7 key characteristics which serve to integrate as a core focus on employee wellbeing. With that focus SMEs can deliver supportive environments for mental health and wellbeing through everything they do.

Recruitment

Of course, good employment practice starts before an employee joins an organisation. Employers should be open and transparent in their recruitment practices – embracing all the principles of equality, diversity and inclusion, and ensuring that there are fair and equitable processes throughout. Indeed, the pursuit of equality through employment sets a leadership culture which will deliver good employment standards.

Fair pay

Fair pay is fundamental to good employment and the Charter specifies that all employees should be paid the real Living Wage which is defined each year by the Resolution Foundation. This is the bare minimum, as we also recognise that other elements of remuneration such as sick pay provision (from day one) and living pensions are also fundamental to providing a baseline of financial security.

Secure work

Secure work is of equal importance. Understanding that your job is secure and protected by employment law, that your shift patterns are predictable and that your income is steady, provides the confidence to plan financially from week to week and month to month.

Without the security of a decent regular income, stress levels rise and the constant worry erodes mental wellbeing and productivity.

Flexible working

The ability to be able to work flexibly from day one is also a hallmark of good work. Living and working through the COVID-19 pandemic has sometimes meant taking a more pragmatic approach to delivering work at a time and place that works for the employee as well as the employer.

For many, working rigid fixed hours at the same place each day can now look old and unproductive compared to a more blended and hybrid approach that allows employees to have a work-life balance that brings better perspective and less stress. We recognise however that this isn't possible for all and employers who need their staff to be close to clients, colleagues or machinery need to consider other ways to accommodate flexibility through shift patterns, job sharing and job design.

Our line manager's guide to creating and leading flexible teams (PDF), produced by Timewise, provides further support for employers on this subject.

Employee engagement

Ensuring that employees have a meaningful voice in the workplace is also vital. Whether through trade union representation (where appropriate) or through other engagement mechanisms, good employers understand that involving, listening to and acting upon the concerns or ideas of their colleagues will enrich the organisational culture and bring genuine empowerment.

Through the COVID-19 pandemic the rise of digital platforms to engage with employees through pulse surveys and the like have greatly helped gauge employee feelings – especially with working remotely.

People management

At the heart of all of this is excellent management practice. The Charter aims to support employers to develop good people managers. These managers understand how to be empathetic and are keen to understand their staff better and help them grow, develop and progress in their working lives.

This is reflected in the Acas framework for positive mental health at work where management plays a key role in ensuring an individual's mental wellbeing is supported through their experience at work.

Wellbeing

Good employers will place the wellbeing of their staff at the heart of what they do. Gone are the days when a fruit bowl and a yoga class would tick the box of 'looking after the health of your staff'. The relationship between work and health, particularly mental wellbeing, is much deeper than that.

In partnership with our colleagues at the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership we published our Mental health toolkit for employers (PDF) to provide the steps all employers need to become even better custodians of mental wellbeing.