We are living in a very unique time. While many organizations are laying off or furloughing employees, others are understaffed with a surge of business (think healthcare, grocery, and delivery). Unfortunately, understaffing can lead to things like burnout and lower performance and productivity. Luckily, there’s some research into what can help! Today, we are talking about coping strategies to help deal with the consequences of being on a team that’s understaffed.

What is Understaffing?

First, let’s make sure we are on the same page in terms of what this means. There are two key types of understaffing – manpower and expertise. They both have their own unique challenges. Manpower understaffing is when you don’t have enough people on the team to get tasks done. This is probably what you thought of when you first started reading this article. Imagine a grocery store right now. If you don’t have enough people to stock the shelves and run the registers at the same time, something will not get done. Either the shelves will be empty for longer than they should be or people will be waiting in long lines to check out. Either way, all of the work cannot be done.

Expertise understaffing, however, is also incredibly important to understand. A team experiences expertise understaffing when they don’t have the appropriate knowledge, skills, or abilities to get the work done. Imagine a hospital that only has a handful of professionals that know how to use a ventilator. If 50 coronavirus patients show up that need a ventilator, the hospital will not be able to get everyone the care they need in a timely fashion. While both types of understaffing are bad, expertise is even harder to overcome.

Coping Strategies

Luckily, there is some research to help us understand how we should be coping with these types of situations. You can cope in many ways but two ways that are critical here are problem-solving coping and emotion-focused coping.

One way you can cope with understaffing is by trying to find some solutions to the problem!

Problem-Solving Coping

In problem-solving coping, a person actively looks for solutions to change the problem they are facing. For example, the grocery store manager puts out job postings to hire more staff to address the shortage of employees. Maybe the team also works on creating new and more efficient processes in the meantime to try and get more done. Both of these examples are about facing the problem directly and trying to find a solution.

Interestingly, many leaders use problem-solving coping when dealing with manpower understaffing. In other words, when it’s just a fact that there aren’t enough people to do the work, leaders will do what they can to try and fix the problem itself. They will think of creative strategies or work with the team to come up with some solution to the understaffing. While this can be very helpful, emotion-focused coping can offer even more!

Emotion-Focused Coping

In emotion-focused coping, a person manages the emotional reaction to being stressed by the understaffing. For example, the grocery store manager buys lunch for the team as a way to show appreciation for the extra hard work. Or maybe the team members have created a mood boosting cheer to use whenever the stress gets overwhelming. In both examples, the employees and leader are doing things to show support and understanding of the situation. They are trying to manage the negative emotions that can come with a stressful situation.

One type of emotion-focused coping is called consideration. A person shows consideration by showing concern and support for others. Basically, you are showing others that you understand the situation and are supporting them through it. When faced with expertise understaffing, many good leaders tend to rely on consideration to help the situation. Often, the solution to a lack of expertise is a lot harder to solve. However, if the leader shows consideration, the team members feel less stressed out by it. The research shows that considerate leaders have teams that burnout less.

While you may not want to actually be touching other people right now, make sure you are still showing support and concern for your team members!

Interestingly, this holds true for both types of understaffing. Regardless of whether the team is lacking manpower or expertise, having a considerate leader can really help the group. Being stretched thin often leads to burnout so it’s incredibly exciting to see that the leader can actually have a big impact in reducing that!

What Can I Do?

Now that we know showing consideration in times of understaffing is helpful, let’s do it! If you are a leader, make sure you are showing support and concern to your team. Let them know you understand the situation and are not holding it against them that the work can’t always be done well or fully. Allow them to voice their concerns. Do what you can to help the team feel supported even in a time that’s incredibly stressful for everyone!

If you are a team member, you can also practice showing support and consideration. We know good relationships with coworkers can be incredibly important. Improve your wellness and help those around you by being a good team member. Help when you have the capacity. Be kind. Show appreciation and support.

If you are dealing with understaffing, just remember that you are doing the best that you can with the resources you have. Keep going, acknowledge the stress, and give yourself (and your teammates) some leeway. You can’t control the situation. Support each other and you will get through it!

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