Mental health factsheet for SMEs

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) account for 99 percent of businesses in the UK, and employ 60 percent of the private sector workforce. The IoD encourages SME directors to join the growing number of UK companies taking the initiative on mental health at work – it makes good business sense and is the right thing to do.

A survey of IoD members conducted in early 2019 indicated a majority view that it is a lack of information, rather than time or resource, which slows progress on mental health in the workplace. This factsheet considers several factors which contribute to a working environment that is both legally-compliant and conducive to positive mental health.

What should SME’s be aiming to achieve on mental health?

The Stevenson-Farmer Review into mental health at work produced the landmark Thriving At Work Report (October 2017). At the heart of the report is a set of core standards on mental health at work to be adopted by the majority of UK companies, with a set of enhanced standards for the largest companies. The core standards are:

  • Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan.
  • Develop mental health awareness among employees.
  • Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling.
  • Provide your employees with good working conditions.
  • Promote effective people management.
  • Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing.

The first two standards are specific to mental health and do involve specific considerations. The contents of a mental health at work plan are discussed in the IoD factsheet A mental health policy for your company. The other four standards are essentially extensions of good management practice – know your employees, empower them, and provide a working environment which makes people feel recognised and valued.

The working environment

Our mood is influenced by our immediate environment. Perhaps your work space compromises on air quality, light levels and appearance – yet these are important factors in how we feel at work.

Air quality – Poor air quality makes people feel tired and makes concentration difficult. Air the workspace regularly if possible. Ventilation and air conditioning systems may be considered if budget allows. One low-cost option is to bring plants into the workspace. Scientific research has confirmed that indoor plants do scrub carbon dioxide and many pollutants from enclosed air spaces, although debate continues over the measurable benefit. That said, a large body of research confirms that people feel less stressed when around plants.

Access to light – Working under generous natural light encourages a positive mental state. Sufficient windows are an obvious requirement. In warehouses and light industrial spaces, skylights may prove the better the option. If people have to work in restricted light conditions, then locate rest areas where there is good natural light. One to one meetings – also small group meetings – can be conducted whilst walking outdoors.

Design and décor – A mental wellbeing programme to limit the risk of employees feeling overwhelmed or not in control should be reflected by a well ordered working environment. Thoughtful use of colour and maintaining good decorative order provides a pep to employees. Even small companies can experiment with layout innovations to encourage a spirit of openness and collaboration.

How work is designed

The effective planning and execution of work is clearly in the interest of the business, and also supports the positive mental wellbeing of employees. Here are some characteristics of well-designed work:

  • There are clear objectives
  • The work is divided into manageable tasks
  • There are constant and clear communications
  • Performance is measured and feedback delivered

What we are striving to avoid is employees becoming disorientated in the workplace, unable to determine if they are getting it right, reduced to taking cues from colleagues about accepted working hours. In such conditions, morale deteriorates and risks of stress and anxiety increase.

Within smaller companies, there is a risk that the demands on a business leader’s time mean that core operations are not always consistently planned, communicated and measured. Work should never be allowed to become an unexamined routine – that risks misunderstandings and errors which ultimately affect morale and mental wellbeing.

How to identify poor mental wellbeing in yourself and others

Research indicates that the majority of employees experiencing poor mental health do not accurately disclose their situation to their employer. The key Thriving At Work report published in 2017 said that eight out of ten companies reported no employee disclosure of mental health issues. This is likely to be far from the real situation. With employees reluctant to disclose mental health issues, the onus is on the employer to identify performance issues associated with mental health issues and engage sensitively with the employee.

Detecting possible mental health issues in employees who are not prepared to discuss them emphasises the importance of regular communication. Your regular catch-ups will provide a baseline of behaviour for each employee, which will make changes in behaviour or mood easier to spot. Regular contact also provides a channel for an employee (who is managing to cover up their condition) to finally admit there is a problem.

Signs to look for – Mind and the CIPD provide an extensive, but by no means exhaustive list, of signs in their publication People Manager’s Guide To Mental Health (see page 21). Expected signs include low mood, lack of engagement, making errors, poor concentration. But also watch for any shift away from the behaviour usually displayed by an individual. A person affected by a mental health issue may either find it difficult to keep to specified working hours, or will work long hours in a bid to compensate for their condition.

Once an employee has disclosed a mental health issue, Mind and the Chartered Institute for Personnel Development recommend that the case be immediately afforded the protection of a process. The key provisions should be:

  • Discuss the employee’s issue in a private place with no distractions or interruptions.
  • Avoid making assumptions – let the employee explain. Most people can work through their issue with appropriate support.
  • Commit to confidentiality and limit the number of other personnel involved or informed.
  • Respond flexibly – Each case is unique. Often, simple adjustments are required.
  • Agree a wellness action plan (WAP). An employee experiencing mental issues will draw confidence and certainty from a structured path.
  • Encourage use of available support – The employee’s GP, the company’s Employee Assistance Programme, helplines operated by Mind and similar organisations.


IoD Mental Health Hub

A collection of practical and inspiring content to support mental health in the workplace

Mental Health At Work Gateway

Mental health charity Mind has created a portal through which a range of resources supporting mental health at work can be accessed

People Manager’s Guide To Mental Health

This collaboration between mental health charity Mind and the Chartered Institute for Personnel Development takes a plain speaking approach to all aspects of mental health in the workplace.

Mental Health Toolkit For Employers

Business In The Community provides a detailed walkthrough of each stage in implementing a programme to support mental health in the workplace.

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