Small businesses—those with fewer than 500 employees—are icons of America’s entrepreneurial spirit and a crucial driver of the economy. In fact, the 2018 Small Business Profile from the U.S. Small Business Administration found America’s 30.2 million small businesses comprised 99.9 percent of the nation’s business entities and employed nearly half the workforce.

How are those tens of millions of employees feeling at work? Could they feel better, and would that improve their performance and productivity? The idea of “wellness” at work has been around for decades, and small businesses understand why it’s important. According to a 2016 Babson College survey, only seven percent of small businesses are required by law to provide health benefits to their employees, but more than half the respondents offered them, despite premium costs that were eight to 18 percent more than equivalent plans at larger firms.

Keeping people healthy is more cost-effective than treating them when they’re sick, of course, but today, recruiting and retaining a happier and more motivated workforce is about more than physical health. It’s about recognizing that overall well-being touches many aspects of employees’ personal and professional lives. As employers strive to maintain a healthy workforce and workplace, they can’t just focus on the physical anymore.

Recruiting is hard work, attrition is expensive

Small businesses know that recruiting  can be challenging, whatever the prevailing economic climate. One in four small business owners say “quality of labor” is the most important problem they face. They also know that young employees new to the workforce aren’t solely motivated by money and bring strong notions about what they need to feel supported at work. If they don’t get it, they’ll look for another opportunity, especially when unemployment rates are low.

“It’s hard hiring people right now, so when you do get new employees in, you want to retain them,” said Tom Carter, national vice president, Workforce Health Consulting Group and Kaiser-on-the-Job at Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Kaiser Permanente. “You do that by treating them the way they want to be treated because if they don’t like the environment, they’ll just go to another employer.”

Building a culture of well-being

A complete well-being strategy includes all the traditional physical and nutritional issues—weight-loss programs and gym discounts for example—but must also address anything else that may prevent employees from making changes in their lives that would benefit them both personally and professionally.

“People typically enjoy their jobs and want them to be interesting and rewarding, but if you’re unhealthy or distracted due to something that’s happening in your life, you’re not going to be happy at work,” Carter said. “The well-being movement is broadening the discussion to help employers think more holistically about how they can support their employees at work in any way they need.”

Those ideas include being more accommodating to flex time and remote work, helping employees tackle financial challenges or debts, finding methods to address stress and generally acknowledging that, as employers, they have a role to play in improving the “life” half of their employees’ work-life balance.

Employers may still want to buy plants for the office, but they also need flex-time policies for employees to manage important life events where and when appropriate, Carter said. “The well-being discussion isn’t just about the physical environment. It’s about how the employer is going to support employees on their life journeys while they are working for them. Small business employers especially need to engage their workforces in ways that reveal how people want to be supported at work.”

Easy steps to healthy success

There are tens of thousands of health-related apps and associated gadgets on the market, but employers shouldn’t assume that buying into digital solutions like these will help everyone. The easier way to start is an open and trust-based conversation about what motivates employees, what concerns them and how management can help them balance their lives. It’s a basic but powerful question: “Is there anything I can do as an employer that will have a positive impact on how you feel about the workplace or the work you do?”

With the right approach, employers can support employees in ways that reduce overall costs, improve efficiency and increase job satisfaction. Even small steps can have a big impact. Some examples:

  • Offer employees who sit for long stretches opportunities to stand and move, perhaps by scheduling standing or walking meetings, having attractive outdoor break areas, or bringing someone in to lead mid-day yoga breaks or mindfulness sessions.
  • Give employees who stand all day comfortable places to sit down.
  • If food is served in meetings, offer healthier choices.
  • Provide a refrigerator to encourage employees to bring their own healthy lunches and perhaps save a few dollars on eating out.
  • Make smoking as inconvenient as possible by creating not just a smoke-free office but also a smoke-free entrance and parking lot. (And help employees quit.)
  • Provide flu shots, encourage hand washing and set up hand sanitizing stations to fend off illnesses and absences that could slow a small business down.
  • Make sure employees are aware of the benefits they already have through health insurance and are clued in to all available local resources, many of which may be free.
  • Make it a regular practice to check in with employees. Ask them how they are doing and how they feel they can be supported. These conversations show management values workers and they’re thinking about more than the bottom line.

Tom Carter, a national vice president at Kaiser Permanente, with Ceci Connolly, the president and CEO of Alliance of Community, at a Washington Post Live event on the state of American small business in November 2018.

A big return on effort

In the end, small businesses must stay profitable and outlays of money, time or energy need to yield a positive return on investment. “Turnover is expensive, so retention matters,” Carter said. “If employers can improve the retention of their workforces by supporting them the way they want to be supported, that’s an important form of ROI, or what I call return on value.” Carter also noted that customers can sense when employees feel better about themselves and their work. “It shows up in the way they talk to customers. They sound happier and less stressed. Remember: we all survive on those customer relationships.”

Small business employers may not be accustomed to asking employees about what motivates them and keeps them engaged at work, but they shouldn’t avoid the conversation. “You have an opportunity to improve the health of your employees every day. Making small changes to your workplace and company policies is a great way to start, and it’s where you can make the biggest impact,” Carter said. Just step back and ask: “How can I better support the well-being of my workforce in ways that will make them feel valued?” The results: higher productivity, lower healthcare costs, fewer absences, better customer service and a stronger bottom line achieved in a happier and less-stressed workplace.