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‘Balancing act’: Researchers say small businesses need training on managing mental health issues

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Heslington, England — In small businesses, an employee’s mental health difficulties can have a swift and intense impact – and owners and managers need more training on addressing the issue, concludes a recent study out of England.

Researchers from the University of York and King’s College London conducted in-depth interviews with 21 managers – many with little training on or experience dealing with mental health issues – from small and microbusinesses based in the United Kingdom to learn how they navigated 45 individual cases of employee mental health problems.

Close-knit social and physical proximity is a feature of many small workplaces. The researchers identified three key tensions that arose as the managers navigated a “balancing act” between support and performance management:

  • Individual vs. collective needs
  • Confidence vs. caution in managing mental health problems
  • Informal vs. formal approach

When the managers had to balance individual needs with collective needs, co-workers of the individual saw their own productivity affected because their colleague wasn’t available. After initially supporting their co-worker, colleague empathy slowly dissipated, but the managers had to maintain confidentiality even as other workers saw that the individual was being treated differently.

When managing mental health issues from a confident vs. cautious standpoint, tensions surfaced when a conversation was initiated and the employee resisted offers of support and work adjustments. Additionally, mangers grew increasingly concerned because they knew they lacked the experience or skills to address the worker’s mental health needs.

The managers also experienced tension when a formal approach to a mental health issue conflicted with informal relationships and organizational culture. Close relationships with workers, one of the managers noted, can be detrimental when attempting to handle a mental health issue in a professional manner. Plus, formal processes to handle these matters and support from other managers tasked with human resources duties typically are lacking.

The researchers note that although a vast amount of online support was available for the managers to address employee mental health issues, some found the challenge of seeking appropriate support overwhelming.


“More needs to be invested in management and leadership skills,” study co-author Jane Suter, a senior lecturer at the York University School for Business and Society, said in a press release. “In a small organization of, say, 10 employees, it’s just the owner-manager shouldering all the management responsibilities.”

The study was published online in the International Small Business Journal.

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