How Leaders and Organizations Can Cope With Understaffing

Topic(s): burnout, leadership, performance, teams
Publication: Journal of Occupational Health Psychology
Article: What to do and what works? Exploring how work groups cope with understaffing
Authors: W. Shen; K. Chang; K.-T. Cheng; K.Y. Kim
Reviewed by: William Hasek

In today’s tight labor market, HR professionals and recruiters are struggling to source and hire qualified talent. As a result, many organizations are struggling with understaffing. Previous research has demonstrated that there are two types of understaffing: manpower understaffing and expertise understaffing. Manpower understaffing occurs when the number of employees in a workgroup is insufficient to complete the group’s assigned tasks. Expertise understaffing occurs when a workgroup lacks employees with the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities to complete tasks.

Past research on the impact of understaffing on performance has mixed results, with some studies showing a negative impact on work performance and other studies showing no impact. Research has consistently shown that understaffing can lead to burnout and dissatisfaction. Leadership exercises a key influence on response to understaffing, as past studies have shown that leaders shape the way employees understand the stressors they are facing, which in turn impacts how those employees cope with these stressors. The quality of employee relationships is also important, as those relationships influence how they respond to challenges.


Most understaffing research has focused on healthcare settings. Furthermore, most of this research has treated understaffing as a challenge that workers passively tolerate rather than a challenge with which they actively cope. To address these shortcomings in the research, Shen et al. (2018) examined work groups from four organizations. The researchers met with the teams once and measured their understaffing level, leadership, and team member quality. They followed up three months later, measuring team performance and burnout levels.

The results showed that when work groups face manpower understaffing, leaders tended to clarify work roles and expectations and to organize group activities. By contrast, when work groups faced expertise understaffing, leaders tended to express more concern for the well-being of group members and group members strengthened the quality of their working relationships. Together, these strategies decreased the impact that understaffing had on burnout and team performance. Importantly, the results showed that considerate behavior on the part of leaders was not enough on its own to prevent burnout from manpower understaffing, as it had to be supported by quality working relationships among team members.


This study showed additional support for the distinction between manpower and expertise understaffing, indicating that recruiters, HR professionals, and leaders need to be aware that understaffing can be manifested in more than one way. While most business literature focuses on understaffing in terms of manpower shortages, a shortage of expertise can be just as influential when it comes to workplace well-being and productivity.

The study also showed that most leaders cope with expertise understaffing by being considerate, showing interest in employee welfare, and being accessible to employees. It is important to show the same level of consideration when workgroups are dealing with manpower understaffing, but leaders also need to carefully attend to the quality of working relationships among group members.

Leadership training should focus on helping leaders strengthen their emotional intelligence, as it will help them guide their team through periods of understaffing. Training should also focus on training leaders to strengthen communication and emotional bonds among team members, as these are important buffers when teams are facing burnout due to understaffing. 


Shen, W., Chang, K., Cheng, K.-T., & Kim, K. Y. (2018). What to Do and What Works? Exploring How Work Groups Cope With Understaffing. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.