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Counting the cost of COVID for small firms and their staff

15 June 2021

Two new studies have highlighted some of the most damaging effects of the pandemic on small businesses and their employees.

Research from small business lender iwoca suggests that one in three small firms are losing customers in order to comply with government COVID guidelines.

The survey has found that four in ten SME owners (41%) say that maintaining a COVID-secure workplace is "significantly" or "very significantly" impacting how their business operates. As well as the time and cost, 32% of small business owners are currently sacrificing customer numbers, a quarter are experiencing fewer sales and 26% have fewer staff in the workplace.

One in four business owners spend over an hour a day making sure that their workplace is COVID-secure and almost a quarter (24%) have spent over £1,000 doing the same.

A significant proportion of the businesses polled are also concerned about the coming months. Two in five small business owners (39%) say they worry they won't be able to afford to pay themselves a salary in the next six months and 13% are worried about being able to pay staff salaries.

It could be even tougher for female SME owners, with 45% anticipating they'll struggle to afford to pay themselves, compared to 37% of male business owners. As the first round of bounce back loan repayments fall due this month, over 41% of women business owners surveyed say they are concerned they might struggle to pay back their COVID loans, compared to 29% of male business owners.

Even so, almost a third of SMEs say they are now in better position than they were pre-COVID. Seema Desai, chief operating officer at iwoca, said: "It's encouraging to see that a third are trading more than they were in pre-COVID times, and hopefully we'll see even more businesses recover once restrictions can be fully lifted around the UK."

Meanwhile, a study by NTT Data UK based on analysis of the latest data from NHS Digital has found that COVID-19 lockdowns have seen an increase in the number of fit notes issued for mental health reasons. A fit note signed by a doctor is usually required when an employee is on sick leave for more than seven days.

Mental health-related illness has been on the rise in the workplace for a number of years - it grew as a proportion of workplace illness by 1% on average year-on-year between 2015 and 2020. However, the data shows that it has risen by over 4% in 2020.

"Employee wellbeing has always been of crucial importance in the workplace," said Vicki Chauhan, head of public sector at NTT Data UK. "This research shows that it's now more important than ever to put our mental health first after the effects that subsequent lockdowns have had on our emotional wellbeing. "

Written by Rachel Miller.

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