Proof that managers must show empathy to understaffed teams

09 October 2018 -

Stressed workerUnsupportive bosses make the mental health effects of understaffing worse

Jermaine Haughton

Feeling overworked? A new study has looked at the effect of managers’ behaviour on understaffed teams. Researchers from the University of Salford in the UK, and University of Waterloo, in Canada, have found evidence that having an emotionally intelligent manager is crucial when employee numbers are down.

The team asked 800 employees and their bosses from four organisations about their experiences of working in an understaffed environment. A report in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology showed 80% of the individuals described the experience as stressful.

Not all managers show compassion

More surprisingly, not all managers in the study showed care and emotional attention to their teams. In situations where understaffing was caused by a lack of skills, managers were supportive. In contrast, leaders displayed less empathy when the teams were merely short on numbers.

Many studies have highlighted the impact of showing emotional intelligence in the workplace, as shown in this CMI Insights post: five reasons we need to show emotion in the boardroom.

Professor Kirk Chang, the understaffing study’s lead researcher, has explained: “[A lack of emotional support] resulted in more stressful situations for employees, potentially leading to lower productivity and other issues associated with a stressful work environment, such as increased burnout.”

This is a business risk, Chang has explained: “Ultimately the company will suffer in the long run, as staff go off sick, or leave the company, potentially making understaffing even worse. Although understaffing causes stress and recently has become a norm in [many] workplaces, managers can still help.”

In this anonymous personal story previously reported by CMI Insights, one manager explained their own mental health problems were affected by a lack of understanding from superiors who simply told them to “keep [their] chin up”. The writer recommended ways for managers to show emotional intelligence in the workplace including: researching conditions and their symptoms; arranging regular meetings; allowing flexible working; and monitoring stress levels.

The Quality of Working Life report from CMI has other tips for best practice.

Image: Shutterstock

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