Recent research from Xero and the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) demonstrates the link between employee wellbeing and business profitability – a 12x return on investment within a year for every dollar spent on wellbeing initiatives, with that gain coming from a correction to productivity loss. 

Health and wellbeing are also – no surprise with the decade we’re having – top of mind for small businesses. 43% of small business leaders are worried about their mental health and a similar proportion are concerned about their employees’ wellbeing. 

Those small businesses don’t have to mimic the big corporates’ meditation rooms, smoothie bars and gym memberships to address wellbeing in the workplace. The Xero/NZIER study also looked at the impact of employee assistance programs (EAPs) that offer counselling for individuals, and at organisational activities and initiatives that shape work cultures.  

We spoke to Robin Wilson, wellness specialist, resilience coach and co-founder of Workplace Wellness, about those organisational approaches and her four ways to support wellbeing and resilience through work cultures.

1. Be alert to burnout

“Many of the small business owners we work with are decidedly toasty around the edges. They haven’t hit full burn out but they are getting pretty close,” says Robin. “It can creep up on you so it’s vital that small business owners are looking out for themselves and for their staff.” 

Robin advises people to be aware of behavioural changes and signs that they are not themselves.  

“Recognise when things are not normal,” she says. “Often that can manifest in compassion fatigue, cynicism and low motivation. Yes, we all have a bad day now and then, but take note of changes that last longer than a day or two – they can be a sign that your mental wellbeing is under pressure.”

2. Listen up and connect

“Through our consultations with business owners, we are discovering that employees want to be heard and valued more than ever,” says Robin. With so much change going on, employees want involvement in decisions about what their work set-up will be and how the business will operate going forward. 

The workplace disruptions caused by the pandemic, however, have reduced the opportunities for connection between small business owners and their employees – think the quick chats in the kitchen or a corridor.  

“Think about ways to have those incidental conversations with employees that you would have had in the office – that’s where you often pick up on how people are feeling, what matters to them and any suggestions they might have.” 

They’re a useful part of the ‘hearts and minds’ side of change processes – an opportunity to less formally communicate the decision-making processes and benefits of upcoming changes.  

Create a variety of ways to keep in touch with your team. It’s not easy for everyone to speak up in a virtual meeting – sometimes an individual phone call, email or face-to-face catch up is a good way to gauge how a team member is faring. 

“A zoom check in will work for some people but not for others. The key is to understand your team and what works for them,” says Robin, emphasising the importance of creating communication pathways, communicating purpose and helping everyone understand their role in a business’s journey 

“Wellbeing is not about free fruit bowls and yoga sessions. It’s about feeling connected, valued and part of something that has a meaningful purpose.”

“Prioritisation is critical to staying in control of your business and of your wellbeing. So ask yourself what’s going to make the biggest difference and what just isn’t worth the effort.”

3. Practice authentic leadership: walk the talk

“There’s no point in signing everyone up for a stress management workshop if you’re then going to work crazy hours and send emails at 10pm,” says Robin.  

The answer? Small businesses don’t necessarily need to institute a four-day working week if it won’t work for them, or lock everyone out of work systems at 5pm on the dot. But leaders who want their team members to look after their wellbeing must demonstrably prioritise their own – which means making time for family, friends, fitness and hobbies, setting boundaries on work hours, and strongly encouraging others to do the same.  

“And you have to demonstrate authenticity,” says Robin. “Make it a culture where it’s okay to not be okay. You don’t have to bare your heart and soul, but showing some vulnerability can be helpful. That might be as simple as saying, ‘I’m finding this tough too and I don’t have all the answers’. It’s a good way to invite input from your staff and empower them to feel they can show up authentically too.”

4. Create a not-to-do list

“Think about what you can leave behind, what’s no longer serving you,” suggests Robin, who encourages her clients to make a not-to-to list, and to make it just as important as their to-do list.  

“Small business owners can often feel like they’re in quicksand, struggling to stay on top of an endless list of jobs. It can be overwhelming. Prioritisation is critical to staying in control of your business and of your wellbeing. So ask yourself what’s going to make the biggest difference and what just isn’t worth the effort.” 

If you’re one of the almost half of small business leaders looking to improve your own and your team’s wellbeing, and boost productivity in the process, a good complement to a robust EAP is to recognise and address burnout symptoms early, make opportunities for those ‘incidental’ conversations, show some vulnerability and lead by example, and prioritise the impactful actions stringently.