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Managers in small businesses face mental health 'balancing act'

Posted on 11 November 2022

Managers in small and micro-businesses in the UK face major challenges in supporting employees with mental health difficulties, according to a new study.

Small and microbusiness managers rarely have access to advice and guidance on mental health

The study, by researchers at the University of York’s School for Business and Society and the ESRC Centre for Society and Mental Health at King’s College London, reveals a picture of managers, many with little training or experience of dealing with mental health issues, “juggling on a tightrope” as they navigate a delicate balancing act between support and performance management.

In a series of in-depth interviews with managers, researchers found that one employee’s mental ill-health could have a swift impact on co-workers in small and microbusinesses and quickly permeate the entire workforce. The close-knit social and physical proximity of small workplaces intensified the impact on colleagues.


The researchers identified tensions for managers in balancing the individual employee’s needs with the impact on performance and wellbeing of the workforce as a whole. Those who had some experience of managing mental health issues adopted a more confident approach to addressing these challenges, while inexperienced managers were often more cautious.

Managers also grappled with the dilemma of whether to approach an employee’s mental health issue informally or through more formal procedures.

The study revealed that small and microbusiness managers rarely had access to advice and guidance from occupational health or human resource management departments, which is the norm in larger organisations.


Similarly, the option of redeploying an employee struggling with a mental health problem to other duties or perhaps another team, which is routinely available to larger firms, was not an option in small and microbusinesses.

Dr Jane Suter, from the University of York’s School of Business and Society, said: “When dealing with a colleague’s mental health challenges, managers can often feel incredibly isolated. It can take an emotional toll on the managers themselves. Some feel that balancing everybody’s needs is like juggling on a tightrope”.

“Many managers were very close to their employees, some viewed them more like friends and family. They were often worried that being too heavy-handed in dealing with mental health issues could impact the entire workforce.”

Online support

A vast amount of online support was available for managers to address employee mental health issues, but some small and micro-business managers found the challenge of seeking appropriate support overwhelming.

Dr Suter said: “It is important to point out that many of the problems around mental health in small and microbusinesses don’t have straightforward solutions. An employee’s mental health problem doesn’t necessarily stem from within the workplace and a manager just cannot resolve it. But he or she still has to manage it.

“More needs to be invested in management and leadership skills. In a small organisation of, say, 10 employees, it is just the owner-manager shouldering all the management responsibilities.”

The study, which is published in International Small Business Journal, involved interviews with managers in 21 UK-based small and microbusinesses and focused on 45 individual employee cases.

Further information:

For more information about the University's work in mental health visit our Institute of Mental Health Research website. Research at the Institute aims to improve the lives and care of people affected by mental health difficulties, and mitigate the impact on individuals, families, the NHS, the workplace and whole communities.

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