Many of us — an estimated 10 million in Britain — work in medium-to-large sized organisations. Companies which employ between 250 and 1,000 staff. But the most common source of employment remains small businesses. And very small businesses at that: about 13 million Brits earn their living in organisations with workforces that average around just five people.
Obviously, as anyone who has made the jump from small to large business (or vice versa) can tell you, life can be very different at these two ends of the employment spectrum. But which is better for employee wellbeing and mental health? As it stands, far more research has been compiled on the functions of large businesses, the government’s own civil servants, in particular. But with investigations of small businesses finally catching up, a picture is beginning to emerge that might reveal a definite answer.
Large organisations, which often have more money to invest, often provide valuable training and avenues for their employees’ development and progression. Yet at the same time, employees tend to be suspicious of larger companies and trust them less. This may be down to two reasons: one is a simple matter of size and communication. That it is difficult to always communicate clearly to larger bodies of teams. The second is that larger corporations can be more ‘political’, with their being inevitable winners and losers divided along these political lines.
To contrast this with smaller business or self-employed workers, there are much higher levels of trust, job satisfaction and job involvement. But there are also higher levels of conflict between the spheres of home and work. In the initial advantages of flexible home working and more autonomy, there are also jarring gender differences. With women tending to be more than likely the ones with the highest home/work conflict.
While it is true that more autonomy and control over one’s work can help to reduce stress levels. The problem is that small business-based workers report having so much more of it. And with these heavier workloads comes — paradoxically — raised cortisol (stress) levels. Small business-based workers have also reported increased loneliness and isolation than their larger-organisational counterparts.
As larger organisations struggle to communicate with their employees. It should not be surprising that they also struggle to recognise the individual contributions of their hardest workers. The resulting effect is that people often feel like they are nothing more than invisible cogs in a huge machine. Efforts to identify hard work, such as performance management systems and KPIs, are only understood to have short term benefits. In the long run, asymmetric salaries, bonuses, and promotions, only serve to punish and demoralize workers who feel they’ve been left behind.
Competitive cultures can make the workplace an unpleasant environment, and drive out pro-social behaviour. And if the competition is valued above learning and development this can lead to what is known as ‘knowledge hoarding’. Where team members guard the secrets to their success to ward off rivals.
Small businesses, on the other hand, tend to lean toward so-called ‘mastery climates’, which are the opposite of knowledge hoarding ones. Here people are encouraged to emphasise learning and collaborations with co-workers. Yet that doesn’t mean mastery climates are only available to small businesses. On the contrary, such a climate can be replicated by local managers able to implement model knowledge sharing behaviours by putting a great degree of trust in the employees. In large organisations, positive organisation and support can go a great deal to overcome the conflict that can come about in hierarchies.
It seems that there are not a lot of opportunities to determine what and how the work is done in larger, hierarchical businesses. The result is that work is often fragmented into smaller pieces for employees to work on. Who then fail to realise the bigger picture and the true meaning of the work carried out.
‘Job crafting’ has been shown to be effective in helping to not only retain staff. But also in engaging them and enhancing their happiness levels. Crafting in itself does nothing to reduce the demands of the job, but it does force employees to think about the resources they have and to engage and use them more effectively. This type of crafting is more familiar with smaller businesses (though it isn’t a guarantee), but there is no reason why it couldn’t be implemented into larger businesses under local managers as well.
Job crafting also encourages greater co-operation and dialogue between employees. And can help to unravel a toxic work atmosphere and reduce feelings of isolation in smaller businesses.
There are advantages and disadvantages to working in both large organisations and smaller businesses. It is too simplistic and unfair to say that working in large hierarchical businesses is bad for employees within them. After all, working freelance, or for small companies can also be depleting and bad for mental health. What is crucial to good mental health, is that all employees recognise or find meaning in what they do. After all, work plays a hugely important role in our personal identity and wellbeing. So does making sure that we are paid well, and fairly, for the tasks at hand.
What is equally important is that, whether one is working for a large or small business, there are positive organisational supports in place. Support in the way jobs are designed, and executed; preferably by good local leaders. The use of fairer ways to track performance management is also very important. Especially if it is to lead to the development of a ‘mastery climate’.
In this article we explore how HR can contribute to an innovative workplace culture.
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