Are You Missing Opportunities Because You’re Understaffed?

Skeleton staff may be a reasonable short-term emergency measure to keep an organization afloat when it is in dire financial straits. But it is not a sustainable way to grow a business over the long term.

It’s common to use payroll cuts to increase profitability. Fewer people to pay means more profit for the organization. However, the toll understaffing takes in the form of lost business opportunities and employee turnover could make it counterproductive.

Employees who can rarely be counted on to notice and respond to an e-mail, and those who vow to do something only to tell you a few weeks later that they never did it, are both symptoms of an understaffed organization. You could say they are symptoms of poor employee performance, but from what I’ve seen, these are usually behaviors of people who are overwhelmed, rather than shortcomings.

Chron published a piece by Mary Nestor-Harper on “Understaffing Issues in the Workplace” that noted the negative consequences of understaffing. The article notes that cutting permanent staff actually can increase costs because of the need to hire temporary help and pay hourly workers overtime. “Fewer employees who now have to work overtime can be more expensive than hiring additional full-time staff. The time regular employees spend training temporary staff and correcting errors reduces productivity. Replacing temporary workers repeats the expensive hire-and-train process,” Nestor-Harper writes.

Extra Help Means Extra Training

This means that during the busiest times of the year, the already-overwhelmed full-time employees will have to take time from their schedules to train temporary employees. The extra help provided by that temporary staff will be counteracted by the time it will take the full-time employees to bring the temporary employees up to speed. By the time they gain proficiency, it will be time for them to leave. That happened to me during a three-week internship when I was a young woman. It took me three weeks just to figure out the complex, industrial-style copy machine. I laughed to myself that I finally fully mastered it on my last day.

Corporate culture also takes a hit when an organization is understaffed, as there is a revolving door of temporary employees no one on the full-time staff gets to know and bond with. In addition, overwhelmed employees means a greater likelihood of high turnover. The combination of temporary employees and greater turnover of full-time employees results in an organization of transients, like people passing through a train station at the same time, rather than long-term colleagues.

Decline in Quality

Product quality, or the quality of the services you deliver, also probably will suffer with too few employees. I have felt at times in my career like I was on auto-pilot, or on a white-collar assembly line—pumping out ever greater amounts of content for whatever publication I was working at in the same amount of time and with the same resources. The work was serviceable, but often not fantastic, or at least not as fantastic as it could have been. Many of us are feeling the effects of understaffing in our everyday lives. In the wake of the Great Resignation, many stores seem to still be struggling to find employees. You go into a store and no one helps you, or the person who helps you is so new that they have not yet been sufficiently trained. They are not capable of giving you the help you need.

Stressed Out Employees

Employee stress is yet another result of understaffing. Along with turnover, stress can take a toll on an employee’s health. They may call in sick more often for a “mental health day,” or they may genuinely get sick more often. Long-term stress has been shown to lower a person’s ability to fight off viruses.

Lost business due to poor customer service combines with losses due to missed opportunities. You miss the opportunity to wow the customer, which results in customers who don’t return to your business. You also miss the opportunity to capture new business. I have experienced having a new, promising endeavor present itself only to be told that the resources are not there to pursue it. “We just have too much already on our plates right now,” is the gist.

Skeleton staff may be a reasonable short-term emergency measure to keep an organization afloat when it is in dire financial straits. But it is not a sustainable way to grow a business over the long term.

How does your organization gauge if you are staffed at appropriate levels? What have you noticed are the downsides of understaffing?