Turning away customers or cutting back on products and services because there are not enough employees to deliver results is a nightmare for every organization. Understaffing costs business and is stressful for employees who have to handle increased workloads.
Understaffing is a typical workforce challenge, and businesses can easily run low on the workforce needed to effectively manage their operations without planning for staff shortage. For instance, insufficient wait staff in restaurants can result in delayed services or understaffed hospitals, causing longer patient wait times.
You want your business to avoid challenges like increased workloads, decreased employee morale, and potential financial losses. That’s why we created this guide to understand the causes of understaffing, the underlying consequences, and practical tips to address this issue effectively.
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Causes of being understaffed at work
To resolve and prevent understaffing issues, you must understand the causes. Here are some of the most common reasons why businesses are understaffed.
1. General employee shortage
For longer times, if you have unfilled positions, finding the right hires can take time. For organizations employing skilled employees, finding the right talent in the job market can be difficult and can lead to a general employee shortage.
2. Seasonal fluctuations
Businesses such as retail stores that experience seasonal peaks in demand may find it challenging to meet their staffing levels when the need for workers is high. Also, they might let off too many employees after peak season, resulting in understaffing during off-peak seasons.
3. High turnover
Companies struggling with high employee turnover can be constantly understaffed, as replacing departing employees can take time.
4. High rate of employee absenteeism
Frequent employee absenteeism is another reason that can cause unexpected staff shortages. High absenteeism can be due to illness, employee burnout, personal reasons, or unforeseen circumstances, but it should be fixed to avoid understaffing situations for the long-term.
5. Increased business
Rapid growth or unexpected surges often leave businesses with staff shortages. A sudden increase in customer demand can easily outpace a business’ ability to hire and train new employees, leading to understaffing.
Strategic restructuring or downsizing decisions result in layoffs, and if the cutbacks are moderate, it can result in understaffing.
7. Lack of qualified employees
In some industries, such as IT, a shortage of qualified candidates with advanced skill sets can make it challenging to fill critical positions, leading to staff shortages.
What happens when you're understaffed?
Understaffing provides a breeding ground for several business issues impacting operations and employees. Your company can face adverse consequences affecting its operations, employees, and overall performance if constantly understaffed.
The existing staff is left with additional responsibilities and workload as the organization does not have the necessary number of employees. While some employees might be able to cope with the increased workload, most may find themselves overwhelmed and need help managing their daily responsibilities effectively.
The added pressure will also lead to employee burnout, severely impacting your employees’ well-being. Furthermore, working in an understaffed environment makes employees feel undervalued as they are expected to do more constantly.
An overworked and demotivated workforce results in slower response times, longer waiting periods, and less personalized service, negatively impacting customer experience.
Therefore, understaffing must be managed to avoid potential financial losses, missed business opportunities, and a high turnover rate.
15 Tips to Resolve Understaffing Problem
1. Recognize your staffing needs
You can only expect to manage understaffing by acknowledging your company’s staffing requirements. Organizations must conduct a thorough assessment to understand each department or team’s specific tasks and responsibilities.
It will help them identify the aspects of the workforce, such as peak work periods, bottlenecks, and areas that require additional support.
It will also help them assess if current employees have the necessary skills to handle assignments. Anticipating staffing needs based on business growth projections, market trends, and seasonality helps avoid understaffing.
2. Communicate with the team
Please communicate with your staff to let them know that the company is understaffed. Provide full disclosure as to why there are not enough employees. This can be done by holding regular team meetings to discuss the staffing shortage.
Encourage team members to share their concerns and suggestions for managing the workload per project priorities and deadlines. There should be a feedback loop to gather employee reviews on how to streamline workflows to alleviate the impact of understaffing.
3. Do staff augmentation
Staff augmentation refers to supplementing your existing workforce with temporary or contract employees.
Suppose you need help finding employees to fill positions that require specific skills; partner with staffing agencies or freelance platforms. That way, you can find qualified temporary employees to integrate into your team seamlessly.
Staff augmentation offers flexibility to address immediate staffing shortages. It can be a cost-effective way to manage understaffing in the long run.
4. Integrate technology & reduce admin work
Leveraging technology is one of the best ways to optimize workflows and streamline administrative tasks. This can significantly reduce the impact of understaffing on the teams.
Automation tools like Truein can handle repetitive administrative processes, such as time and attendance monitoring, overtime and leave calculations, and scheduling. Your staff time is freed that can be invested in higher-value tasks.
Task management tools like Asana and Jira can help teams prioritize work to improve delivery and progress. Integrating technology into workforce management reduces the administrative burden on employees and enhances overall efficiency and productivity.
5. Get leaders involved
You must have read how Mark Zuckerberg overhauled the managers at Meta by asking them not just to manage but also code. It is an example of getting leaders involved when times get tough. Understaffing can harbor resentment among employees if they feel others are not carrying their weight. That’s why senior-level employees must be as involved as lower-level workers.
6. Do scenario planning
You have to consider various scenarios teams can face for accurate staffing plans. This approach will train your employees to handle ad hoc requests or avoid force majeure outside the project timeline. Scenario planning ensures no ripple effect because of understaffing, and operations continue even with added demands.
7. Outsource tasks
Outsourcing can help mitigate the risks posed by understaffing. Companies can delegate non-core or specialized functions and processes to external service providers.
For instance, manufacturing companies can outsource IT support, and fintech organizations can outsource customer support. However, outsourcing tasks require carefully choosing the outsourcing partners based on their expertise and track record.
8. Implement reskilling and upskilling initiatives
Training programs that allow employees to reskill and upskill help businesses weather a staffing shortage by redistributing the workforce to fill different roles and responsibilities. For instance, machinists can be supervisors if they know the whole manufacturing cycle. Offering professional development opportunities also improves employee retention.
9. Consider internships
Internships provide organizations an opportunity to address understaffing at the same time, groom future full-time employees. Interns can assist with non-core tasks and projects and bring fresh perspectives to the team.
Create structured internship programs that provide candidates with skill development opportunities in exchange for adding value to your organization.
10. Cross-train employees
Cross-training employees create a workforce that can perform multiple roles. When you have employees who can take on various roles and handle inter-domain responsibilities, you can minimize the impact of understaffing on productivity.
Identify the roles that have overlapping skills or responsibilities and then create structured training plans that employees can take to juggle between roles when required. Periodically assess employees’ progress to ensure they acquire new skills and their ability to perform in multiple roles.
11. Set a culture of teamwork
Your cross-training efforts will only be fruitful if you cultivate a culture of teamwork at the workplace. Leaders should lead by example by actively participating in team efforts and demonstrating collaboration.
Companies that encourage open and effective communication among team members foster teamwork. Recognize and reward instances of exceptional cooperation to motivate employees to support each other, distribute workloads evenly, and work harmoniously when understaffed.
12. Prioritize tasks
Understaffing often leads to the urgency of prioritizing tasks to ensure mission-critical tasks are completed on time. Clearly define deadlines and goals for jobs and projects, as it helps set priorities. When teams are aware of crucial work, it is completed first.
Task management tools make tracking progress and prioritizing tasks easier. Additionally, they review jobs regularly to adjust their priorities to adapt to changing business circumstances and demands.
13. Don't overwork your employees
Understaffing often leads to an overworked workforce. If your employees are overworking regularly, it will adversely affect their well-being and productivity. Also, it can lead to employee burnout.
Managers should ensure that employee workloads remain manageable and reasonable. Encouraging work-life balance, even when you are understaffed, is essential.
14. Increase employee perks & benefits
When your employees work extra to compensate for understaffing, it is only fair to provide higher perks and benefits as a reward. If possible, offer flexible work hours or remote work options to give employees greater control over their schedules even when working more.
Consider offering additional paid vacation days and health and wellness programs to let employees relax and recharge.
15. Stay positive
Understaffing pressures employers, but maintaining a positive outlook and attitude is vital for success. Managers and supervisors should exude resilience and optimism.
Communication with employees regularly to address understaffing and the progress being made boosts their morale. Learn to celebrate small achievements and milestones, no matter how modest they may seem.
Manage understaffing with Truein
Truein’s workforce management features can help companies manage understaffing concerns. Truein is a cloud-based, hardware-less time and attendance management software offering robust scheduling, monitoring, and workforce management options.
It accurately records attendance and monitors work which in turn helps improve productivity at work. Managers can create optimized schedules by accessing employee availability, skills, and workload data.
It significantly automates payroll processing by integrating into existing payroll software and eliminating the need for manual calculations such as overtime, leaves, and vacation days.
Understaffing can be a significant challenge for businesses if left unattended, bringing productivity, revenue, and employee job satisfaction to a halt. As a business owner or manager, you must identify the understaffing causes.
Awareness of the consequences and the right strategies to manage understaffing is necessary for organizations to effectively address issues, maintain employee productivity, and ensure employee satisfaction.
1. How do you keep employee morale up when you're short-staffed?
Clear and open communication, acknowledging hard work, providing support, offering incentives, and fostering a collaborative environment are ways to keep employee morale up when a business is understaffed.
2. How can you improve the condition of being short-staffed in the long run?
To manage understaffing in the long run, organizations must improve hiring practices to hire culturally fit and skilled employees, cross-train workers, and optimize workflow processes by integrating technology at the workplace.