Understaffed and overworked? How to keep employees engaged in difficult times.


By now, you’ve certainly heard terms like burnout, quiet quitting, and the Great Resignation or Reshuffle all too often. These trends help illustrate the current state of the workforce. Companies that continue to put exceptionally high time and workload demands on their employees without proper resources, compensation, and flexibility are experiencing attrition at a high rate.

In a study of 36,000 tech professionals experiencing burnout, at least 42% said they were thinking of quitting their job in the next six months.1 In such a fast-paced industry, the workers discuss conditions like heavier workloads, longer hours, less work-life balance, and mental or emotional health concerns. Heather Webb, a Human Resources Leader at Google, knows this. She shares that Google’s bottom-up information gathering approach allows the employees to share what enhances their engagement. “By providing forums and opportunities where employees feel empowered to share opinions and be heard, we create an environment where people want to be.” 

Another hard-hit business segment is the National Parks Service. According to OnLabor’s article in 2022, national parks saw a 20% increase in visitation while at the same time losing 16% of its staff.2  

While these are two very different industries, the issues are the same; and they’re the same in your company if you’re experiencing a worker shortage and/or higher demand. These stats aren’t meant to scare you (although they are terrifying), but to illustrate the impact on your current workforce.

To stop the bleeding caused by understaffing and overworking, here’s how to keep your current people engaged and retained.

Adjust expectations accordingly.

The quickest way to disengage and burn out workers is by expecting them to do more work in the same amount of time. It’s one thing to ask someone to take on tasks temporarily due to an unexpected vacancy, but when it’s taking months to back-fill a position,3 the expectations need adjustment.

  1. Reprioritize tasks. Clarify the high impact activities and effort needed. Don’t give a 10 effort when a 7 yields the same results. Your people want to add value, so make it clear how they can do that by focusing on what really matters. That way, even though they may be working harder, their energy is going into the right places providing a stronger sense of accomplishment.
     
  2. Manage your own expectations. Don’t expect someone’s skills to increase just because the business needs changed. When demand is high or staffing is low, someone else picks up the slack. That usually means someone who may not have been prepared, trained, or developed to handle that responsibility. Keeping your expectations in line will have a huge impact in how you manage your employees and how they’ll feel about this new workload.
     
  3. Communicate early and often. It’s important that you communicate not only internally, but to external partners to help relieve the pressure your team feels. For instance, if another department is waiting on something from your team, give them a head’s up that you’re short-staffed and confirm a new due date if possible. This can help avoid backlash or criticism your team would hear that would only add to their stress.

Make time for recognition and rewards.

Enough studies have proven that people do better work when they feel a sense of accomplishment, positive reinforcement, and value. “This can be achieved through bonuses, promotions or other incentives recognizing employees’ efforts and contributions.”4 Keep in mind, all recognition doesn’t have to be monetary.

  1. Know what motivates your people. Look at the extrinsic and intrinsic motivators of your team so you can connect with them personally. Something as simple as a phone call, email, or handwritten note can make a difference.
     
  2. Be mindful of how you deliver feedback. When people are overworked or learning something new, they tend to make more mistakes than they would otherwise make. Lean more towards praising and positively reinforcing the behaviors you want to see increase rather than focusing only on the negatives.

  3. Promote skill development. Even though the circumstances might not be ideal, the fact this hardship can be a great growth opportunity for your employees. Make sure you’re helping them see the short and long-term benefits for their overall development.

Help your people set better boundaries.

Most workers are going to step up to fill the need. They’ll work through breaks, lunches, or put in extra hours. Fast Company reports that 57% of people fail to even use their time off, and those that do, either feel shame or are afraid of how it makes them look.5 It’s the leader’s job to help protect your employees from themselves and encourage them to utilize their sick-time, time off, and other company provided benefits and resources.

  1. Pay attention to the time. If you see an employee that’s putting in consistent extra hours, make sure to check in. Keep in mind what they may be personally sacrificing by working longer hours. You may have to push them to leave on time or even early some days.

  2. Set the tone. There’s a difference between feeling required to do something versus volunteering to do something. Make sure the language you’re using regarding the workload and schedules is positive and motivating, so that you’re not contributing to people’s fears and anxiety.

  3. Lead by example. Your actions speak louder than words. It’s important that you also set and keep your own boundaries. If you overwork and lose composure, your team will do the same.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce America Works Data Center article published in April 2023, there are 1.8 million workers missing from the labor force compared to Feb. 2020, “and this shortage is impacting all industries in nearly every state.”6

To keep employees engaged and employed make sure you’re setting reasonable expectations and communicating those effectively. Take time to recognize and reward people while also giving them grace when taking on more tasks. Finally, help them set boundaries to protect themselves from burnout.

  1. Hughes, Owen. Tech workers face a ‘burnout crisis’ unless employers act now. March 4, 2022. ZDNet Tech Today. https://www.zdnet.com/article/tech-workers-face-a-burnout-crisis-unless-employers-act-now/
  2. Bennett, Grace. National Parks Are Swamped, But the Park Service Faces Mountainous Employment Crises. April 20, 2022. OnLabor. https://onlabor.org/national-parks-are-swamped-but-the-park-service-faces-mountainous-employment-crises/
  3. Clark, Lindsay. IT depts struggle with skills shortages despite Big Tech layoffs. March 22, 2023. The Register. https://www.theregister.com/2023/03/22/skills_shortage_shadows_it_departments/
  4. Taplin, Steve. 5 Ways to Mitigate Tech Employee Fatigue in 2023. April 26, 2023. Entrepreneur.  https://www.entrepreneur.com/leadership/5-things-tech-employers-can-do-to-mitigate-employee-fatigue/449123
  5. Davis, Pete and Staff, Jon. People fought for time off from work, so stop working so much. February 23, 2019. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/90309992/people-fought-for-time-off-from-work-so-stop-working-so-much
  6. Ferguson, Stephanie. America Works Data Center, Capturing the current state of the U.S. workforce. April 30, 2023. U.S. Chamber of Commerce. https://www.uschamber.com/workforce/america-works-data-center
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