Short Handed or Long on Luck? 
Wednesday, December 28, 2011 at 4:26PM
Andrea Jarrell

Extended employee absences can be an opportunity for—not a burden on—your office operations

The extended absence of a staff member can place stress on an entire office. Psychologist and Author Barbara Reinhold recommends three steps for eliminating these pressures: 1) Prevention -- make sure employees are willing and able to perform more than one function in the organization. 2) Intervention -- to handle the increased workload, prioritize tasks throughout the office and cut back on nonessentials. 3) Communication -- keep the absent employee informed about changes occurring while she or he is on leave.

By Andrea Jarrell

When an office is short-handed, anxiety can arise on a number of levels. The supervisor agonizes over how to get everything done. Employees wonder how the reshuffling of duties will affect their workload. The person leaving worries that everyone will resent his absence, or worse, that he won't be missed at all.

Each of these worries can become an oppressive issue that no one talks about, says Barbara Reinhold, a psychology professor and director of the Career Development Office at Smith College, who also wrote the book Toxic Work: How to Overcome Stress, Overload and Burnout, and Revitalize Your Career (Plume, 1997).

When an office faces any type of personnel change, employees often view it as a situation to endure until everything is "back to normal," she says. But that's not the best tack. It's wiser, she says, to view these staff changes as a natural part of your program's life cycle.

"The 'normal' you knew will likely never return," Reinhold says. "More often than not, your entire office will undergo a major transformation during the extended absence of a staff member."

In her consulting work with colleges, universities, and other nonprofits, Reinhold recommends three steps for eliminating these oppressive issues: prevention, intervention, and communication.


Even before an employee approaches you about going on leave, make sure your team is made up of what factory managers call "universal operators": employees who are willing and able to perform more than one function within your organization.

"Employees who are information gatekeepers can be extraordinarily dangerous to the productivity of a program," Reinhold says. At one organization, for example, no one dared question the practices of a longtime staff member. But while she was out on leave, her colleagues experimented with better ways of doing things, such as replacing time-consuming paper memos with e-mail and dedicating two hours a day for responding to client requests, rather than being interrupted all day.

If some employees haven't exactly adopted the team mentality, use an impending leave of absence to forge some esprit de corps. Ask everyone in your group to help you develop a strategy for dealing with the absence. Nip resentments in the bud by making it clear that the remaining staffers won't simply absorb all of the duties of the departing colleague—you will work together to determine what staff members can reasonably accomplish, what activities they can farm out, and what they might have to put on hold for awhile.


Reinhold believes in the well-known Pareto Principle, which states that 80 percent of our effectiveness comes from 20 percent of our activities. When a position is vacant, it's an ideal time for you and your staff to act on this principle to figure out what activities within your department offer the most return. Then you can better allocate staff resources.

Start by determining the number of hours you have available as a group. For instance, if you're an office of five when fully staffed, you have 200 hours a week in which to work. Subtract one person and you have 160 hours. Guide your team into deciding how best to use those 160 hours. One way to do this is to list your office's tasks for a normal week and how much time it takes to complete each one. Then rank the tasks in order of importance to your office's mission. Using this information, you can

(1) decide to stop doing some of the tasks near the bottom of the list, and

(2) pare down the amount of time you spend on the remaining tasks.

Whatever you do, your office should strive to make improvements that the absent employee can embrace when she returns to the office, which leads us to the final step.


"Stay in touch with people while they're on leave so they know they may not be coming back to the exact same situation," Reinhold says. A client of hers learned this lesson the hard way when one of her returning employees was shocked to find his colleagues working more effectively while "covering" for him. Reinhold says her client could have reduced the staffer's discomfort by keeping him in the loop about the changes while he was on leave.

The amount of communication is something you should establish in advance, if possible. Reinhold advises managers to be respectful of the employee's wishes. If he is out due to grave illness or a death in the family, he may want some solitude. But, if he's laid up at home with a broken leg, he may crave a connection to the outside world.

Whatever your situtation, the three simple steps of prevention, intervention, and communication can help you weather extended staffing gaps and turn an employee's leave into a boon for your office, not a catastrophe.

This article is from the July/August 1999 issue.




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