How to overcome the challenges of being short-staffed

Nicholas Kira

16 May 2024

14 min read

In this post, we’ll cover the things that cause you to be short-staffed, how it can affect your business, and how to manage it, with some handy hints and tips. Running a business effectively and efficiently presents challenges at the best of times, but one thing that can cause a real headache, particularly for HR teams and those responsible for managing staff rosters, is being short-staffed.

In the short term, being understaffed may result in offering a lesser service to customers, clients, and end users.

In the longer term it can lead to wider issues, such as low staff morale, high levels of stress or even worker burnout, and, ultimately, a higher staff turnover. And it’s a problem that exists in the here and now, with recent surveys showing that a significant number of U.S. businesses are experiencing staffing shortages on a weekly basis.

In fact, a 2022 survey by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce revealed that 47% of businesses reported having open positions for which they could not find qualified candidates.

There are a whole host of reasons for this, which we’ll go on to discuss, but it could simply be that some staff are unwilling to work certain days or hours or they don’t wish to (or can’t) work overtime.

However, there is a viable solution in the face of what, at first glance, appears to be all doom and gloom.

Our survey, of over 400 U.S businesses, highlighted that two in five (40%) of them are using more temp staff than they were a year ago, while 28% said using temps is the best way to fill staffing gaps at short notice.

And this doesn’t have to be a ‘last ditch’ or desperate move, as the right staffing partner – such as Indeed Flex – can provide you with carefully vetted, highly-skilled, and experienced temp workers, covering a whole host of different sectors.

Ultimately, temp workers provide employers with an immediate and flexible solution to being understaffed.

And many workers are only too happy to take on temp roles, as they provide complete flexibility in terms of when and where they work. In fact, a large number find the temping lifestyle suits them better than a permanent job with one employer, as it gives them variety and the freedom to fit work around their lifestyle and other commitments, like childcare or caring for a loved one.

And, as they say – happy employees are productive employees.

So, read on, as we delve a little deeper into the reasons behind being short-staffed, the impact it can have on your business, and how best to manage being understaffed.

Causes of being short-staffed at work

There are a number of reasons a business might find itself short-staffed. It may be that certain workers are only available on certain days, it may be that a business experiences seasonal fluctuations in terms of customer demand, it may be due to about of sickness doing the rounds. We’ll look to cover some of those reasons here.

Seasonal fluctuations

This is a fairly common cause of being short-staffed. At certain times of year, often known as ‘peak times’, businesses find they need more staff on board, to meet customer demand.

The most obvious time is in the run up to Christmas and New Year, with that increase in customer demand starting as early as September (certainly, in the retail sector).

This, in turn, leads to an increase in demand for staff to fill shifts across the whole week. But… this is the one time of year when many permanent staff will choose to take holidays, perhaps with their families.

So, it’s vital to have a ‘Plan B’ to avoid a staffing shortage, and a potential drop in the levels of customer service your business can provide. This is where temp workers can step up to the plate, and provide the cover you need – coming in at short notice and making sure everything runs smoothly, and customers receive the high levels of service they’ve come to expect of you.

High turnover

A high turnover can be another reason for a business being understaffed.

A high turnover occurs when staff frequently leave after only a short period of time with a company. This leads to that business having to spend time and resources filling the gaps.

Frequent turnover of staff can disrupt workflows and reduce overall productivity, so it’s vital to have a plan to cover this of staff, and keep the wheels turning.

Unexpected absences

Probably the most common reason for a business to find itself short-staffed due to unexpected absences. These can happen at any time, through unfortunate circumstances, and may include:

  • Sudden illness: It can often happen that an employee wakes up and feels unwell, injures themselves at home, or suffers the sudden onset of an illness such as a migraine or flu.
  • Family emergencies: Urgent family emergencies can often happen without warning, such as having a sick child, there being a death within the family, or someone being let down at a late stage by their usual childcare provider.
  • Transportation issues: Disruptions to public transport, car breakdowns, or unexpected delays due to bad weather can sometimes prevent employees from reaching work on time, or even being able to get to work at all.
  • Personal emergencies: These are slightly different from family emergencies, in that they’re not necessarily emotional in nature, but can still cause problems to the employee(s) affected. Typical personal emergencies might include a big leak in the home, a burst pipe, or a problem with a major appliance that requires immediate attention.
  • Mental health issues: Beyond physical ailments, it may be that a staff member suffers from anxiety, depression, or has other mental health challenges, which can sometimes lead to unexpected absences, as they need time to address their wellbeing, and find the best treatment options.

In all of the examples above, a swift Plan B is needed, to cover for these absences at short notice, while remaining sensitive to the needs of the absent staff member(s).

Skills gap

A skills shortage can leave a business short-staffed in several ways, hampering it in its aim to function efficiently, effectively, and profitably, and, again, meet the demands of its customers or clients.

It could be that there’s a limited candidate pool to choose from, with a lack of qualified candidates with the right skills required for the job(s), leading to long, and often tiring, staff searches.

Or, it could be that you’re competing with rival businesses for a small pool of qualified staff, leading to bidding wars for top candidates.

If this is the case, then it may well be worth considering widening the talent pool from that which you’re currently searching within.

It’s also probably worth having a quick read of our report on how to combat a talent shortage, by building your employer brand.

Workforce planning issues

Workforce planning issues can certainly play their part in leaving a business with not enough staff, and some of these issues relate to the causes of being short-staffed that we’ve previously mentioned.

  • Underestimating needs: It may well be that a business misjudges future demand for its products or services, and, in doing so, they don’t hire enough staff to handle the workload. This can lead to understaffing during peak periods and increased pressure on existing employees.
  • Not considering turnover: Failing to consider expected employee turnover rates, can also lead to a staffing shortage. Workforce planning should take into consideration historical turnover data to ensure enough new hires are brought in to replace those who are leaving.
  • Reactive vs. proactive approach: Businesses that only react to staffing needs as they arise are more likely to experience short-staffing issues. A proactive approach involves anticipating future needs based on market trends, seasonal demand, growth plans, and potential changes in regulations. Something that may well help you, in considering a proactive approach is our Labour Market Outlook 2024 report, highlighting the latest trends in the employment market.
  • Ignoring evolving skill needs: The skills required for certain jobs might change over time due to technological advancements or changes within a particular industry. Businesses that don’t stay up to date on these skill requirements might find themselves looking for talent they haven’t prepared for.
  • Ineffective recruitment methods: Relying solely on traditional methods like job boards might not enable you to reach the widest pool of qualified candidates. Businesses should explore diverse recruitment strategies, including the use of social media, targeted advertising, employee referral programmes, and digital/tech-first staffing platforms, such as Indeed Flex.

This list is far from exhaustive – there are many other reasons a business might find itself short-staffed, and those listed above are just a few of them.

Whatever the reason(s), it pays to have some sort of contingency strategy in place, so take this into consideration so that you can avoid the strain on your business that being short-staffed causes.

Impact on your business

In the short-term, being short-staffed could be seen as a minor inconvenience to most businesses. In the longer-term, it can cause significant problems, which would need to be addressed quickly.

The following are just some of the problems that can arise as a result of a business being short-staffed.

High levels of stress within the working environment

Constantly being short-staffed puts excess levels of stress on staff members who remain with the business, with workers feeling like they have endless lists of tasks or constant deadlines to meet, which just don’t seem to be achievable.

It may even be that some workers are thrown into performing the role of an absent colleague, with which they’re unfamiliar and they’re afraid of making mistakes in that role.

If workloads are no longer bearable for the staff who remain on board and/or they’re trying to cope with roles they’re not used to doing (or even doing an additional job on top of their own), this will likely lead to high levels of anxiety, or even complete burnout – forcing them to take time off or even quit entirely.

Higher employee turnover

This point leads directly on from the previous one. The excess strain and stress that being short-staffed puts on workers can lead to much higher employee turnover, over a period of time, as morale, job satisfaction, and general wellbeing are all affected.

Ultimately, employees constantly working in a stressful environment are far more likely to seek out opportunities with better work-life balance, lower stress levels, and greater career growth potential.

Increased risk of accidents… and your liability

With employees within an understaffed business being stretched to capacity, and putting in extra hours, both mental fatigue and physical exhaustion are likely to creep in.

Tired and distracted employees are not only likely to be less productive, but also more prone to being involved in workplace accidents, sustaining injuries as a result. This, in turn, may also lead to further absenteeism and potential legal proceedings, depending on the nature of the incident and what caused it.

Loss of knowledge and skills

The burnout and higher staff turnover that we mentioned earlier can also mean that your business loses experienced employees with valuable knowledge and skills. These are probably things that it’s taken those employees a number of months, if not years, to learn and are vital to them being able to do their job properly.

When they leave, their knowledge and skills leave with them and it can take time to replace this.

Direct impact on customer service

Being short-staffed, and having a high turnover as a result, can lead to inconsistency in the level of service offered to your customers, as new staff keep coming in.

These new hires may not have the experience or knowledge to provide the same level of service as the experienced staff who’ve left, and may take a little while to get up to speed on the ins and outs of your product or service, and how you speak to customers. 

Ultimately, it costs money

The constant need to recruit new staff to fill roles leads to business expenses like advertising, agency fees, background checks, and training programmes.

The training element can be particularly costly, as it takes time to train new hires properly and can involve the use of a number of resources.

How to manage a staffing shortage

If you’re reading this post, certainly if you’ve read down this far, we’re going to make the fairly safe assumption that this topic is of interest to you, and your business may well currently be short-staffed. You might even be among the 47% of U.S businesses we mentioned who struggle to fill certain roles.

Given those assumptions, we’re now going to look at how to manage a staffing shortage in the here and now, rather than longer-term strategies to avoid being short-staffed in the first place. So, here are a few things you can do, as soon as is feasibly possible, if you find yourself with a staffing shortage:

  • Cross-training: No, not those crazy cardio machines you find in the gym… we’re talking about training existing staff up with additional skills, to take on responsibilities beyond their usual remit, and fill some of the gaps.
  • Overtime: Offer overtime opportunities to fill critical needs, but be mindful of employee wellbeing, to avoid burnout.
  • Prioritise tasks: Identify and prioritise essential tasks only, to ensure the core functions of your business run smoothly during your staffing shortage.
  • Seek temporary help: Temp staffing agencies can help to fill short-term gaps with qualified temporary workers. Or, better still, you could turn to a non-traditional, tech-based temp staffing solution, like Indeed Flex, giving you instant access to a pre-vetted, talented pool of staff.
  • Freelancers and contractors: Consider hiring freelancers or contractors for specialised skills needed on a project-by-project basis.
  • Automate repetitive tasks: Look for opportunities to automate repetitive tasks, using technology, to free up staff time.
  • Invest in employee wellbeing: Okay, we told a slight fib – this is more about avoiding being short-staffed in the long-term. One thing that could help, in terms of retaining staff, is to prioritise their wellbeing through programmes like flexible work arrangements, mental health support, and work-life balance initiatives
  • Competitive compensation and benefits: Also more of a longer-term strategy – look to offer salaries and benefits packages that are in line with industry standards to attract and retain top talent. If you do happen to look at Indeed Flex as the solution to your temporary staffing needs, you’ll be pleased to know that we offer a comprehensive benefits package to all workers (or ‘Flexers’, as we call them) who use our app. So, one less cost for you to worry about.

And those, in a nutshell, are our top tips on how to manage a staffing shortage.

How to overcome the challenges of being short-staffed: in conclusion

If nearly half of U.S businesses are saying that they often struggle to find qualified candidates to fill positions, then there’s definitely an issue there – one that needs to be addressed, as it can lead to staff burnout, high turnover, poor customer service, and possible workplace accidents, which no one wants.

While some things simply can’t be avoided, such as staff absences through sickness, family or personal emergencies, or mental health issues, other issues – with a little foresight and planning – can certainly be avoided.

You can, of course, cross-train some staff and offer overtime too, but that may still put a strain on those particular employees.

A solid temporary staffing solution may provide the answers you’re looking for. Not the old way of doing things, via a traditional staffing agency, with limited quality control or choice in terms of the staff provided, but a modern-day, tech-enabled platform which allows you access  to thousands of pre-vetted, highly qualified, skilled, experienced workers, in just a few taps.

That’s what Indeed Flex offers: speed and flexibility, workers ideally matched to the roles you have on offer, and choice (location of workers, availability, skill set, level of experience, and so on).

Why not give us a test drive and book a demo today?