Resilience, staffing, succession planning, and changes for our era
August 3, 2022 2:01 PM   Subscribe

"Today, when someone is sick, they’re often sicker, or sick for longer than we are used to." "The new normal of staffing, conferences, and work" is a post by Heidi Waterhouse (disclaimer: a friend). "We have to change how we think about staffing and add in a lot of expensive redundancy. I thought about this originally in the context of in-person events, but it’s honestly true for every part of work and life."
posted by brainwane (29 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
More like put back the redundancy that used to be there, before it all got stripped away by short-sighted anti-worker hiring practices.
posted by subdee at 2:41 PM on August 3 [95 favorites]

I've worked in academic libraries for nearly 15 years. What I hear from old-timers about our staffing levels stuns me, and a lot of data from the Association of Research Libraries. Libraries that used to serve smaller populations had way more staff running them. Now, all but the most elite libraries have been totally hollowed out, many losing at least a third of their staff since the 80s/90s. My library has single points of failure at every level, where if one person is out... that service is simply not getting done. Because everyone else in their unit is already doing the jobs of 3-4 other people. There are so many people in interim roles, and we have to fight tooth and nail to get a new job approved. When someone retires or resigns, they usually aren't replaced, and it's been that way for years. Now the chickens are coming home to roost, and I genuinely fear that most libraries are on the verge of imminent collapse.

So yes, private sector organizations that can afford to hire more people should do so. But I am wondering when those of us in the public sector who have lived a version of this for 30 years will catch a break, too. I suspect it will involve ensuring the private sector pays its fair share of taxes so that our emergency services, schools, libraries, parks, and public health services can actually staff up instead of having to choke down yet more austerity measures.
posted by mostly vowels at 2:59 PM on August 3 [81 favorites]

Yup, in the software industry lots of managers have rules of thumb about how many people you need to support various different kinds of on-call rotas. It's become really obvious that those rules of thumb need updating now. Not just for the amount of sick leave and kid leave that Covid requires, but also to handle the increase in staff turnover that's come with remote working and that doesn't seem to have stopped with just the one shuffle-about.

Also lots of white collar people are suddenly discovering for the first time in their careers, what happens when you run out of sick leave. Which in turn means managers having to manage people who are turning up to work but don't really have the mental capacity to do the job.
posted by quacks like a duck at 3:58 PM on August 3 [22 favorites]

I was in Puerto Rico in December and the staffing level is retail stores was shocking. 4 employees in a not busy Starbucks, at least 4 or 5 in a surf shop, etc. And they all seemed relaxed and happy. Probably not a coincidence.
posted by COD at 4:04 PM on August 3 [13 favorites]

What mostly vowels said about libraries applies at my job too. We cannot keep fully staffed here, period, and "fully staffed" would be a bare minimum. If someone's sick for weeks (or multiple people sick for weeks, or the entire half of the staff is out sick for weeks), stuff won't get done. But it's always "paying people is expensive" and never going to happen.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:05 PM on August 3 [5 favorites]

I have a friend who's an academic librarian at a small private university and her job situation is pretty much exactly what mostly vowels describes. I need to send this thread/link to her.
posted by gentlyepigrams at 5:04 PM on August 3 [8 favorites]

*laughs in non-profit*
posted by pompomtom at 5:35 PM on August 3 [15 favorites]

This was a really good read!

I especially noted the bits about communication being public and explicit project management.

And the conclusion on wishing for the world we knew to return or making changes for the world we have now- very well written.

In education and health care the phrase you read a lot in the media is that the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated problems that were already present. I hope private industry best practice changes and that trickles over to public industry (because the big bosses seem obsessed with replicating private industry "efficiencies" all the time.)
posted by freethefeet at 6:46 PM on August 3 [5 favorites]

sigh, mostly vowels...of course, the collections budget will never be cut, gotta have acce$$ to tho$e journal $ub$cription$. I'm less than five years into my first librarian job, and I wonder when the whole system is going to fall apart because we sent all the money somewhere else.
posted by avocet at 7:01 PM on August 3 [10 favorites]

I want someone to model the expected number of sick days (paid or otherwise) it we should be planning for under various assumptions about COVID. Has anyone seen something like this?
posted by eirias at 12:28 AM on August 4 [7 favorites]

I was in Puerto Rico in December and the staffing level is retail stores was shocking. 4 employees in a not busy Starbucks, at least 4 or 5 in a surf shop, etc. And they all seemed relaxed and happy. Probably not a coincidence.

I'm agog, from the opposite direction. This isn't normal??

Anyway, I'm more for this idea especially for my sector (intdev) i sound like a crazy old lady every time i talk about the history of 'secretarial pools' ie admin staff and computing, and the switch to a consultancy-based mindset.
posted by cendawanita at 12:39 AM on August 4 [3 favorites]

My husband works in an organisation that is a mix of civil service and military in the UK. Positions have been stripped over the years and they are now barebones. This is always a problem. The latest iteration - my husband has not been able to take leave all year, has worked through leave days and sick days. He has two weeks of leave booked for this month. One other person on his team also had leave approved, which was doable. Now another person has been signed off sick for two weeks. So there is an expectation that someone will rescind their leave.

There is also a lack of admin support - what would have previously been dealt with by clerks - like HR, pay, finance etc. - is just left. So everything takes much longer because a) no-one has the specialist knowledge or even where to go looking to find it when there are questions and b) there is an expectation that 'someone' is taking care of these issues, only to find that, nope, no-one is and it has all turned to clag. People spend so much of their job doing things that are actually not their job but have to be done.
posted by Megami at 1:42 AM on August 4 [16 favorites]

I want someone to model the expected number of sick days (paid or otherwise) it we should be planning for under various assumptions about COVID. Has anyone seen something like this?
posted by eirias at 12:28 AM

Ditto monkey pox, which is four weeks long right now, I think.

Do people have four weeks of sick time a year?

I do think this was the reason for the COVID ' quarantine shrink' from 10 days to 5, although I do think there is data to back it up.
posted by eustatic at 5:49 AM on August 4 [6 favorites]

A big part of why staffing is so low in America is that providing health care to employees is really expensive for businesses and governments in the current system. The business, corporate and right-wings lobbies pretty much cut of their noses to spite their own faces and then are surprised when the open wound bleeds and impacts their bottom line and society.

Fucking over labor is great fun for capitalists until they realize they actually need labor to make their capital return more money.
posted by srboisvert at 5:56 AM on August 4 [18 favorites]

The Tory/Conservative/Republican plan is always strip staff from the public sector until it's failing, complain how government just can't fulfill that need and business would do a much better job, then their buddies jack up prices so fewer people can get the need fulfilled, and continue to understaff so now no one except the rich can have adequate water, healthcare, social services, whatever.

The game is played so brazenly now, e.g. in Ontario, I despair. Can we punch conservatives?
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:11 AM on August 4 [19 favorites]

I've been banging this drum at work for a while now. I'm the lead engineer for our test cell that is located on a ship, and for a while I was the only person in the company that knew how to run that test cell. I finally started training up a junior engineer, but he doesn't have enough experience to take over for me if the metaphorical bus hits.

This came to a head in January, 2021. It was decided that a test event needed to be run on this ship, but because of the very real concerns about covid (this is pre-vaccine for everyone but the highest risk people, remember) we were required to quarantine for two weeks before boarding the ship. My usual team of 6-8 was reduced to 4 people from 3 different organizations. If anyone on that team couldn't board the ship for any reason, we would have to cancel the test.

It was incredibly high risk - these test events are very, very expensive and require lots of planning and logistics - but I couldn't convince the powers that be to allocate extra money to send backup personnel into quarantine. And this was a "mission critical" event that was going to have major impacts to our deployment if it couldn't be accomplished!
posted by backseatpilot at 6:19 AM on August 4 [14 favorites]

You better believe this is happening in retail. Why can't you get any help at Home Depot? Why do fastfood clerks and baristas look like sad zombies? Why doesn't anyone want to work anymore, indeed.
posted by es_de_bah at 7:33 AM on August 4 [8 favorites]

Today's Washington Post: America faces catastrophic teacher shortage
posted by splitpeasoup at 7:44 AM on August 4 [5 favorites]

Now, all but the most elite libraries have been totally hollowed out, many losing at least a third of their staff since the 80s/90s.

Ours has been cut in half in the last three years.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:05 AM on August 4 [4 favorites]

I suspect it will involve ensuring the private sector pays its fair share of taxes so that our emergency services, schools, libraries, parks, and public health services can actually staff up instead of having to choke down yet more austerity measures.

Can you imagine?
posted by Gadarene at 8:15 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]

The isolation shrinkage for COVID is not actually borne out by data. I remember hearing some noise that it might have been okay for Delta, but it isn’t for Omicron. I’ve variously heard estimates for median length of positive antigen testing as anywhere from 5 to 8 days, meaning half of people or more are still shedding when they are asked to return to work. Some people of course wind up positive for significantly longer still. We should be antigen testing to exit, just as Biden is and as Fauci did.

In some sense, though, policy is an imperfect means of reducing the costs of widespread absence anyway, if people are literally too sick to work. I guess the thought is that there are enough people for whom that won’t be true that we can make some hay by bringing the merely sniffling-and-shedding back to their desks.
posted by eirias at 8:24 AM on August 4 [4 favorites]

This article resonates so strongly with something I've been saying at my (nonprofit) organization since even before the pandemic! Businesses have been incentivized to operate on the thinnest staffing margins. Then when you have any kind of disruption - the pandemic, sure, but also parental leave or turnover or what have you - your remaining employees are left trying to do multiple jobs at once, with zero flex in the system for them to do so without burning out.

I have been in meetings where people are trying to budget staff hours for different projects, and they start out with our full time hours as the number of hours a person has to apply to a year (or month or week) of work. I then mention "But what about company holidays, sick time, and PTO? Doesn't an average employee have closer to 30-35 hours a week to work on projects when you take all that out?" and executives' minds are BLOWN. Yet they make the big bucks.

And then there's my opinion that your most productive, creative, and engaged employees are ones who are not scheduled with project work and meetings for every single hour in their day. At least in my case, project planning never includes just thinking time, or enough administrative time for even day to day tasks like managing your calendar and inbox, taking notes and turning them into actionable to do lists, keeping your files organized, asking and answering questions with your coworkers, etc.

If people don't have time to mentally breathe and relax, they are less innovative, less organized, less engaged with and connected to their colleagues, and ultimately less productive. Yet it's squeeze squeeze squeeze our staffing levels down to the barest minimum for efficiency's sake. Make it make sense.
posted by misskaz at 10:03 AM on August 4 [23 favorites]

I read a 2001 business book by Tom DeMarco titled Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency, and the situation's only gotten worse since then.
posted by cheshyre at 10:27 AM on August 4 [5 favorites]

i spent 7 years working for a "non-profit" that put on 5000+ people conferences with a staff of about 13. one year our post-conference survey of attendees someone said "staff looks tired" and our CEO flipped out that we were out drinking too late after the day ended. no. it's those 18-20 hour days that make us look tired bitch.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 10:31 AM on August 4 [18 favorites]

I worked for the service and support team of the retail arm of a large fruit-themed computer company in the 2010s. We were constantly overloaded and understaffed even without people calling out. We had a wave of flu go through the store and I begged our leads/managers to book an extra person in each shift who didn't have appointments assigned to them, so they could cover walk-ins (we were in a mall!) and when someone called out sick. They told us they weren't allowed too, and when one understanding manager finally found a way to finagle a way to get an additional person on shift without assigning them every-ten-minutes appointments for 8 hours, it got found out and shut down by fruit company bean counters, despite that same company posting billions in profit quarterly.
posted by sleeping bear at 10:37 AM on August 4 [8 favorites]

I'm part of a medical admin pool for a healthcare clinic and despite recent slew of hires, my workplace still runs short a lot of times and you have admin doing multiple roles and I get why they go on burnout leave quite a bit.

My clinic is comprised of five offices (one building has one clinic on the ground floor, the second floor has two shared office spaces, and the second building has one office on each floor), which means each team of doctors and residents (we are a teaching facility in addition to providing said healthcare) has their own receptionist. Those receptionists not only schedule patients/check in patients/scan and tag docs like Rx refills and ER records etc, but also given an additional time consuming task. One is responsible for long term care home paperwork, another is responsible for tongue-tie bookings AND gender diversity bookings, another is responsible for social work bookings, you get the idea. Like, just doing the receptionist stuff alone is like having a firehose directed at your face, there is so much happening at once, that a lot of times stuff will fall to wayside because they are human and are already working at max capacity. I know it all comes down to money but I am absolutely dumbfounded that they load these poor clerks up with more shit in addition to the current stressful shit they do everyday. (And so many of them continue working on stuff when they get home and stay up late because they don't want to fall behind. This angers me in terms of the so called "life-work balance.")

Working in any capacity in healthcare is such a shitshow right now. I did three years at the hospital (left six months into COVID due to burnout) and now the same pattern is repeating itself despite having more flexibility.
posted by Kitteh at 11:46 AM on August 4 [6 favorites]

Here in Australia they've been cutting the budget for Federal public service staff (Departmental funding) since 1987.

Three and a half decades on, the cumulative impact of the annual efficiency dividends is a real reduction of between 40% and 50% compared to 1987 (bearing in mind inflation as well)

The result?

Public service staff are exhausted and burned out, quitting and/or getting sick

avoidable mistakes are being made because people are overworked and exhausted

and there is inadequate scrutiny of Administered funding [the funding to run programs, can't be used for staffing] because there are too few staff :(
posted by carriage pulled by cassowaries at 1:06 PM on August 4 [5 favorites]

I found the step beyond self checkout.

Meanwhile, wearing a mask in indoor spaces like retail stores during times of high infection rates is too much of an imposition, because there are enough hospital beds in case workers who have to be there are unlucky and get really sick and not just “five days quarantine” sick.
posted by jimw at 11:51 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]

More organizing, more strikes, more organizing, more strikes. We're going to have to claw every last penny from the pockets of the owner class with our blood, sweat, and tears. But there are a lot more of us than there are of them.
posted by petiteviolette at 2:32 PM on August 5 [6 favorites]

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