Background The Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdowns created a challenging economic and social context for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), with significant changes to workplaces, routines, income and communication. Employers were suddenly faced with distinct needs and requirements from staff whose health and wellbeing were newly under threat, whilst also needing to protect the SME and the livelihood it provided. We aimed to explore the complexities of weathering these conditions, both for business survival and the wellbeing of staff.
Methods To understand the specific and nuanced experiences of SMEs, we conducted in-depth online interviews with SME owners/managers sampled from a range of industries across Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, including private sector and third sector organisations. We also carried out a qualitative survey distributed online through Cornish SME groups. The two sets of data were analysed separately using thematic analysis, producing similar findings which we report together here.
Results We interviewed ten owners/managers and collected survey responses from a further 47. Our analysis suggests two different ways that SMEs showed concern for their employees. The first theme, ‘Caring about’, reflected a form of care at a distance, such as having structures in place for staff members to take responsibility for self-care, like accessing therapy funded by their employer. Owners/managers were genuinely concerned about employees’ wellbeing but sometimes struggled to reconcile these needs with the personal strain of keeping an organisation afloat in times of crisis. The second theme, ‘Caring for’, reflected a more engaged effort to lighten the load for employees through attentive care practices; a form of ongoing tinkering in a shifting and uncertain situation. For example, one noted the importance of having the confidence to initiate difficult conversations when they believed an employee might be struggling, even if a solution was not immediately evident.
Conclusion We examined an under-explored dimension of SME responses to external crises like Covid-19: the complexities and opportunities of mobilising and sustaining relations of care to support wellbeing. Our data detail the efforts made by Cornish SME owners/managers to ‘care about’ and beyond that to ‘care for’ their staff, whilst also caring for a livelihood. However, there is potential to develop more reciprocal ‘webs’ of care that also encompass and nurture the care needs of the owners/managers themselves.
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