How to succeed with an understaffed and overworked team

Communication is key when dealing with an over-stretched team.


Understaffing is a problem for companies with tight resources. While it might keep the salaries bill down, it can have a detrimental effect on companies. It can cause problems including low work quality, reputation damage, and losing out on potential growth opportunities. Plus it can create a vicious cycle - understaffing often leads to burnout, causing more employees to leave which, in turn, exacerbates the problem.

A study by the University of Salford (UK) and the University of Waterloo (Canada) found that nearly 80 per cent of 800 employees and their bosses, from 96 workgroups employed by four technology organisations, felt stressed by understaffing levels and felt that this was impacting on their work performance.

“Ultimately, the company will suffer in the long run, as staff go off sick or leave the company, potentially making understaffing even worse,” one of the researchers involved in the study, Professor Kirk Chang, an expert in human resources of the University of Salford Business School, said.

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Of course, the main way to solve problems associated with understaffing is to hire more people. But recruitment takes time and must be done well, otherwise, the new hires will just leave if they are not the right fit. A solution to this might be to hire temporary employees to help the team get over a particularly busy patch; for example, in the run-up to Christmas, without having to commit to permanent hires that might not be suitable or match the company culture long-term.

If temporary hires are not suitable, managers can help understaffed teams by showing more empathy. Employees working at understaffed companies suffer from burnout less when managers take into account that they are working with fewer resources, research in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found. The study found that managers would react in a more emotional, empathetic way when their teams lacked technical expertise but if they were simply understaffed, they reacted with less empathy, and this resulted in more stressful situations for their employees.

Communication is key when dealing with an over-stretched team. Thank the team for the extra effort they are putting in, reward them for it, and keep them informed on the company’s priorities, main projects, and future plans. If suitable, see what technology is available to help the team work more efficiently, and invest in it. It might also be worth seeing if some existing employees could do a course or additional education to get them to a more senior level in the company if it is difficult to hire people into those positions.

Also, acknowledge that if people are working incredibly hard and juggling several projects at once, every now and then something will slip. Measure the situation, and the pressure a person is under before you decide whether it is appropriate to berate them over one mistake considering the amount of work they are doing. If you are in an organisation that is understaffed, you know how hard it is to attract talent, so do not push away the talent you already have.

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