How shrinking teams are pushing workers to the brink

  27 February 2023    Read: 6092
How shrinking teams are pushing workers to the brink

As layoffs bite, teams are becoming smaller – and fewer resources mean remaining employees are spread thin and overburdened.

As the head of marketing for a UK restaurant group, James’s role was to develop its long-term strategy, steadily build its digital audience and gradually increase footfall. However, his job looked different in practice – there were never enough employees to get even the smaller, more routine tasks done, let alone focus on the job he was hired to do.

“From day one, there was a lack of numbers,” says London-based James, whose surname is being withheld for career-security concerns. “I was spread too thinly to be able to work effectively: I’d have to try and fit the big-picture strategic stuff of marketing alongside the granular day-to-day stuff.” His bosses, he says, showed little sympathy, and James often found himself working 16-hour days.

His team was so lean, hobbled by labour shortages following Brexit, pandemic-enforced lockdowns and the overall hiring crisis in the service industry, that James says even managers would often have to wait tables. And these issues also had a knock-on effect for his job: “Customers would have a bad experience at the venue because it was so short-staffed that it would negatively affect me as a marketer,” he says.

Lacking help daily, James’s job soon became impossible. “I understand why companies want to run things with low staffing to minimise risk, particularly as hospitality is going through a very difficult period,” he says. “However, it takes a great toll on everyone involved.”

Unbearable workloads

Being on a small team doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily understaffed, even if work demands are high.

Some teams are simply designed to be lean, with these employees expected to be in multifaceted roles that enable them to work with limited resources. “In some cases, employees have varied skill sets that enable them to be efficient, productive and get their jobs done,” explains Deniece Maston, HR advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management (Shrm), based in Virginia, US.

But there’s a significant difference between a team that’s intentionally designed to be small and nimble, versus one that is resource-poor.

If workloads are no longer bearable when an employee is absent, and colleagues are suddenly thrust into performing another worker’s job requirements, then it’s likely to be a case of understaffing. “In these situations, employees can frequently find themselves needing to work overtime,” says Maston.

As global layoffs pick up speed, remaining employees are finding themselves on shrinking teams. And continuing economic uncertainty means many businesses are striving to do more with less, as they cut jobs and slam the recruitment brakes. For the employees still working, reduced headcounts mean they’re often expected to pick up the slack, lift heavier workloads and complete tasks beyond their job remit.

All this comes at a cost. Economic conditions may mean more workers could find themselves in understaffed workplaces and, amid broader market uncertainty, have little choice but to stretch themselves to their limits. While the work may still get done in the short term, understaffing ultimately takes a toll: creating stress, anxiety and burnout for employees, and other insidious consequences long-term.

Of course, under-resourced teams can affect output for companies. But there’s a human side, too. Workers ultimately bear the brunt of understaffing, leaving them psychologically burdened on top of their already-heavy workloads. This impacts not only their job performance – something that can reflect negatively on them – but also their mental health. “Understaffing creates stress and anxiety among teams that eventually impacts the quality of work and employee wellbeing”, says Maston.

This reality hit James hard – he says it placed him in an untenable position. “I had a choice: either work a draining number of hours, or opt for a more manageable workday that meant I’d have to deal with the stress later, knowing that not all my tasks had been completed that day.”

Here to stay?

Headcount was already going down at many firms before news of cross-sector job cuts.

During the height of the Great Resignation, for instance, workers who remained were expected to pick up the slack as employees quit in droves. And while teams worked extra hard to compensate, many of the vacated positions sat open as recruiters struggled: an October 2022 survey of more than 5,100 firms by the British Chambers of Commerce showed that 76% reported difficulties recruiting staff, with 56% saying that they were operating below full capacity as a result of hiring shortages.

Although a tumultuous labour market can create understaffed teams, employers may also create these situations, since it makes financial sense for companies to operate as lean as possible. “Executives focus on profit as the priority, and people are an expensive resource,” says Kirk Chang, professor of business at University of East London. “A business wants to produce maximum revenue with minimal costs – there’s a financial incentive to work round-the-clock and maximise every employee’s potential.”

Compared to workers, management can therefore have a different perspective on what constitutes understaffing. Bosses naturally favour employees that are proactive and push themselves to their limit, says Chang. “If a lack of manpower is flagged, a manager may remind them they’re paid to do a job and to maximise their potential, rather than complain.”

And as employees see their colleagues cut, they can feel tacit pressure to accept a lack of resources, push through and take on heavier workloads. “An employee will immediately feel stress in this situation,” says Chang.

In many instances, workers will be inclined to dig in for their own security and help their stretched colleagues. This keeps productivity high in the short term, pleasing bosses and incentivising them to keep teams small, but it also masks the deeper understaffing issues. And while depleted resources can have immediate knock-on effects, harm can also be slow and insidious, negatively impacting a career in the long term.

Eventually, say experts, understaffing is unsustainable: there’s always a breaking point, be it the work that suffers or the worker’s wellbeing. “If an employee is required to do an extra job on top of their existing workload every day, it can eventually lead to significant burnout,” says Chang. “The worker will shut down and may even be forced to quit.”

Despite this, current macroeconomic factors and labour-market issues mean many workers can expect to be on short-staffed teams – for the time being, at least. It’s not just the companies conducting layoffs that create these situations, though. Some firms aren’t cutting workers, but are instead still struggling to fill vacancies that have existed for years – keeping currently under-resourced teams stuck in the same spot.

“Understaffing may be a reality for a while,” says Maston.


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