New Zealand is home to more than 400,000 small businesses, with about 70 per cent - or 280,000 - one-person operations. With the country's suicide rates at their highest levels since records began, Aimee Shaw explores how small businesses can combat poor mental health in the workplace.
A new report looking into mental health in the small business sector says organisations that prioritise the wellbeing of their workforce outperform the industry average by approximately 10 per cent.
Nearly a quarter of the population suffered from poor mental wellbeing last year, but 40 per cent of the country's small firms say they do not feel responsibility for their staff's wellbeing - and just one in five SMEs provide support such as counselling.
The Small Business Wellbeing report, a joint study conducted by the Mental Health Foundation and small business accounting firm Xero, says every dollar spent on mental health services in New Zealand could repay the nation with $3.50 in productivity gains.
A Deloitte study in the UK found that mental health awareness and intervention could result in a return on investment of up to £8.40 ($17) for every £1 ($2) spent, and reactive support a return of up to £5.10 ($10) for every £1 spent.
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Small firms in this country employ nearly 600,000 workers, 30 per cent of the workforce. But just one third of the 1000 small businesses surveyed for the report said they believed their staff, and business, would benefit from improved wellbeing.
Thirty nine per cent of owners admitted that running a small business had negatively affected their mental health.
The report found that many small business leaders lacked "a holistic understanding of what wellbeing is".
Craig Hudson, managing director of Xero New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, said it was the responsibility of an employer to take care of staff, and was both socially and financially beneficial.
"The traditional [thinking] of leaving your baggage at the door and just turning up and doing your job is still alive and well, when actually there's enough research out there that shows if you invest in the wellbeing of your staff then you are actually going to get quite a good return in productivity," Hudson said.
"If you have your team members turning up to work in a better frame of mind and willing to go above and beyond for you as a business owner then productivity and bottom line return [will improve]."
Hudson said business leaders and employers needed to change tack to bring about change as New Zealand had some of the worst mental health statistics in the world.
About 1.2 million New Zealanders suffered from poor mental health last year.
Deaths by suicide reached their highest level since records began 12 years ago, with 685 suicides recorded in the year to June 30 - 17 more than last year.
Loneliness and isolation plagues the small business sector, for most firms are one-man operations. The average number of staff in a workplace in this country is just four.
Many people still perceived opening up about mental health struggles at work as career-limiting, making support harder to navigate, Hudson said.
Xero launched a pilot programme offering free counselling and mental health services to organisations, their people and families using its software six months ago. The pilot has been expanded to reach 850,000 New Zealanders and extended for the next 12 months.
Hudson said employers should be doing more to combat the effects of poor mental health. "Everybody in business in New Zealand could be doing more. We spend way too much time at work to not be thinking as leaders about how we can better look after our people.
"It makes fiscal sense to be able to focus on wellbeing to dispel the myth that it is the floppy stuff. We should be over-investing in wellbeing for our employees because it will create long-term sustainable growth for our small business economy."
Research by Massey University referenced in the report outlined that employee mental health was identified as the biggest wellbeing challenge in the workplace this year.
BusinessNZ's own 2019 Workplace Wellness report outlined that businesses - including larger firms - spend on average $1500 per staff member annually on initiatives to improve employee wellbeing.
Kirk Hope, chief executive of BusinessNZ, said mental wellness of staff in an organisation played a sizeable role on the productivity of an enterprise.
"A number of small businesses are not very active in promoting the wellbeing of staff, and instead focused on the business succeeding, however, actively promoting staff wellbeing doesn't need to be at the expense of business success - it is possible to succeed at both," Hope told the Herald.
He agreed that mental wellbeing ultimately affected the bottom line of a business. Businesses that ignored that "ignored that at their own peril", Hope said.
"Be capable enough to identify where you might have an employee who is not feeling 100 per cent and be able to help them work through that through employee assistance programs."
He said there was a "huge amount" of pressure on small business owners, due to increased regulatory compliance such as changes to minimum wage and employment law, which meant many now spent more time focused "in the business", which prevented them from thinking about or addressing wellbeing issues.
"It's important that the Government recognise that," Hope said, adding that small firms also needed access to more information on how to approach wellbeing issues.
"If small business owners are struggling because of a whole range of factors and aren't able to get their head above the carpet, [how can they] help or address some of the issues their own staff may be having."
Business Mentors chief executive Craig Garner said an organisation's biggest asset was its staff, and legislatively businesses had a responsibility under the Health and Safety Act.
"Employers are not there to meddle in their employees' lives but they have a responsibility of care," Garner said.
"Safety is one part of it, but wellbeing is the bigger part."
He said he did not believe small firms were doing enough to combat the effects of poor mental health, but were beginning to understand it better. "The problem is with that Kiwi 'She'll be alright' toughen-up kind of attitude, it is still prevalent in a lot of industry."
The Small Business Wellbeing report, put together over one year, found 53 per cent of owners were actively doing something about workplace wellbeing.
"You can look at that as glass half-full or glass half-empty ... it shows there is big room for improvement," said Shaun Robinson, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation.
The trades and manufacturing sectors needed the most work to improve employee mental health, he said, while Maori employers were found to be most likely to be concerned about the wellbeing of staff, and see it as part of their responsibility.
By the end of 2020, depression and anxiety are due to outstrip heart disease in terms of prevalence in western countries.
Robinson said small business owners needed support, and needed to help themselves before they were able to help their teams. "The really important thing that comes out of this report confirms that it is not about major changes; a lot of what improves wellbeing can be small steps - it's about modelling being open to talking about what's going on.
"Small business owners themselves need to feel confident to be able to talk about their own mental health and wellbeing because employees always do what they see, not what they are told."
WHERE TO GET HELP:
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.
OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:
• 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) (available 24/7)
• YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
• KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757 or TEXT 4202