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Why should SMEs invest in occupational health?

On the surface it can be problematic for SMEs to invest in occupational health. Whilst larger organisations have the infrastructure and finances in place that make it viable to run an OH department, many small and medium sized businesses operate on limited budgets and believe there are better things to spend that money on.

Having some occupational health provision can actually help businesses of all sizes save money lost due to sickness and absence and help create a sense of better wellbeing for employees that improves and sustains productivity.

The definition of an SME is one that has under 250 employees (under 50 for small businesses). With the majority of companies nowadays falling into this category, this represents a large number of people who are not receiving the OH guidance and support that they need. Many SMEs treat employee health on an ad hoc basis and only acknowledge there is a problem when something goes wrong or they receive a visit from the HSE that requires action.

Most business owners are far more concerned with how their company is performing than whether they have the right processes in place to support employees who have health problems. They believe they can cope with these kinds of situation as they arise. Unfortunately, this if not always the case and bad management of health and safety situations can have catastrophic consequences for businesses that work on a tight budget.

You might be surprised to learn that the Health and Safety Executive consider the SME sector to have the potential to put their staff in harm’s way. As an OH provider we are often contacted by businesses that have had a visit from the HSE and been told that they need to implement certain measures to comply with current legislation or to maintain staff safety.

Sickness and Absence

The SME sector provides employment for almost 13 million people in this country alone and many people who work in industries such as retail, construction and hotel and catering are not protected by a robust OH service that keeps them safe at work and helps them to cope with any health problems.

  • Minor ailments account for 75% of absences in SMEs and cost on average 1.8 days (per employee) lost to illness each year.
  • Long term absences can have an even bigger effect on small and medium size businesses especially when it is an employee who performs a function that is difficult to cover.
  • Pressure to stay at work because they are ‘indispensable’ can cause major long term problems with a serious illness for individuals in SMEs.

It would be different if SMEs suffered from vastly different problems than larger organisations. In truth, employees anywhere can have health issues and small businesses, just as any other, suffer from sickness and absence that can impact on productivity in a big way. This can have a number of major effects:

  • Having to handle statutory sick pay or recompensing other workers for overtime.
  • The disruption to the skill mix when someone hired to do a specific job is off sick.
  • A backlog of work that could lead to upsetting customers and losing business.
  • Getting an employee successfully back to full employment after a long period of absence.

Managers within an SME are often not trained to deal with sickness and absence and how to make the most of an often difficult situation. Owners too work on when they have a health problem, because they feel there is no one else to take the helm and this can lead to more issues down the line as their health worsens. Managing health and safety is considered by most companies as integral to running a good business and it’s part of the HSE remit to visit SMEs to make sure they are complying with current legislation.

The Bottom Line

It’s not just the question of sickness and absence that is important. Injuries at work occur more in SMEs than larger companies simply because the robust processes are not in place that could prevent accidents. It’s not something that SMEs usually consider until an accident happens and they are held personally responsible.

According to Personnel Today only 3% of SMEs have access to full occupational health advice. This might mean that SMEs don’t understand the nature of OH and they are not really sure about how it can benefit their business. Companies that have a deeper knowledge of what an OH provision can deliver are more likely to incorporate it into the operating strategy.

Of course, the bottom line for many businesses that have a low number of employees is the financial aspect. If you are working to a tight budget then you are much less likely to incorporate OH into your office strategy.

The Benefits of a Tailored OH Strategy for SMEs

Despite money concerns there are some real benefits for SMEs that engage with an occupational health service:

  • There are real business benefits in introducing health and safety measures that reduce time off work and prevent accidents occurring in and around the workplace.
  • SMEs don’t necessarily have to opt for a traditional style occupational health nurse or doctor but can benefit from specific guidance and the introduction of measures such as health monitoring and back to work schemes that make a big difference to business operation.
  • The growth of smaller, commercial occupational health providers that can offer services at a more competitive price and in a more tailored way means that SMEs can get the advice and provision they need to operate more effectively.

The good news is that a comprehensive OH provision for SMEs is much more viable than it was just a few years ago. That means small and medium size businesses can tailor an occupational health service to their needs and also their budget. Having a good occupational health service on board can help soften the impact of sickness and absence at work as well as reducing the possibility of accidents in the workplace. It can also grow as the business grows, providing a firm foundation for health and wellbeing for both staff and employers.


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