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Understaffed and overworked: How can HR escape the busyness trap?

Understaffed and overworked: How can HR escape the busyness trap?

pink background, busy person walking with laptop overworked

The last two years have been a roller coaster for HR teams. They played a key role in the shift to remote work during the pandemic. As organizations downsized, they often had to deal with layoffs. Then, they had to set companies up for the return to the office or a permanent shift to remote and hybrid work.

This made an existing problem even more visible: HR teams are often understaffed and overworked. It seems like there’s an endless stream of fires to put out and everyone needs something from HR. So how can we help them escape the busyness trap?

How do you know you’re understaffed?

You’ll probably know it when your HR department is understaffed. But there are some robust indicators and benchmarks you can look at, such as the HR-to-employee ratio. (Note: FTE stands for “full-time equivalent”.)

HR-to-employee ratio = (# of HR FTE / # total FTE) x 100

In other words, the ratio tells you how many HR staff (FTE) there are to support 100 employees (FTE). 

The chart below from SHRM showcases the HR-to-employee ratio in various organization sizes. As you can see, the number of HR staff per 100 employees drops significantly in larger companies.

Chart showing the employee-to-HR ratio by staff size, indicating that understaffed HR departments are common
Source: SHRM

These are just averages and every company has unique needs. In addition to size, factors that influence how many HR people are needed include:

  • Technology – A team with less mature digital HR and self-service functionalities needs to be bigger to support employees.
  • Role of HR – A highly operational HR team that, for example, writes every single job description, needs to be bigger than a more strategic one.
  • Growth – In fast-growing organizations, the HR team will dedicate more resources to hiring and onboarding related tasks. Also, scaling people processes comes with a lot of learning, iteration, and adaptation (plus change management). That calls for a bigger HR team.

That means while a team of six HR people is roughly the average in an organization of 500 employees, this number may need to scale up depending on the above factors (and various others).

4 D’s to escape the busyness trap

For HR departments to escape “the busyness trap” – aka spending too much time on internal requests and administrative tasks – we’ve developed a framework of the 4 D’s:


Digitization isn’t binary – even though it’s made up of ones and zeroes in the background – it’s about how advanced your digital processes are. It’s not a secret that paper-based processes are productivity killers. But even digital processes that still involve a lot of copy and paste keep teams busier than necessary.

So what’s the solution? Digital internal records and processes, a well-connected software ecosystem, and easy-to-access self-service options.

It’s important to remember that adoption will make or break your digital HR processes. If employees don’t use your systems or don’t use them correctly or consistently, time savings are limited and additional work is created. The more integrated into the flow of work, the better. For example, bring People processes and self-service tasks into Slack, Microsoft Teams, or wherever employees like to communicate and find information.


Questions (e.g., What’s our policy for…? How do I…? Where do I find…?) and routine tasks take up a lot of time, often more than we expect. Responding to them manually doesn’t scale well because every new employee creates roughly the same workload of supporting them with these repeated questions and tasks.

Even if there’s a handbook, HR teams often complain about the number of questions they get that could easily be answered by looking into the handbook. The inconvenient truth is that no one reads your employee handbook.

Good documentation should be:

  • Extensive enough to cover the most frequently asked questions
  • Easily discoverable from tools employees use every day
  • Focused on relevant information (To avoid confusion, employees should ideally only see information that applies to their location, department etc.)


HR is often the first team employees go to for a wide range of work-related matters. This means that HR is often dealing with topics that are technically not part of their responsibilities. Here’s how an understaffed and overworked HR department can delegate certain tasks to other stakeholders when they need support:

Supervisors: Equipping managers with the knowledge to support employees well can help keep some questions away from HR. However, it’s important to acknowledge that leading and coaching a team is a lot of work already, so you don’t want to put too many additional administrative tasks on their plate.

Accounting & payroll: Payroll-related questions typically contribute a large percentage of questions that end up on HR’s table. Educating employees on when to reach out to the accounting or payroll team – and offering an easy option to do so – can remove quite a bit of work from HR’s ‘to do’ list.


HR teams’ work is often invisible until there’s an issue. This means other people in the organization – including leaders – tend to take HR for granted and underestimate the work that’s required to keep people processes from falling apart.

By collecting and presenting compelling data, HR can make a case for adding more staff or investing in better processes when needed. For example: 

  • How many internal requests do we handle each week? 
  • Are we able to respond in a timely fashion? 
  • How is work distributed across team members?

Tools to support an understaffed HR department

Hopefully this framework of the 4 D’s can help you avoid the ‘busyness trap’. Platforms like Back can support you in doing so.

Back makes it simple for employees to get automated answers to FAQs – about policies, benefits, or anything else. The platform can integrate with your other systems, enabling employees to find a solution in the tools they’re already using daily, like Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Google Chat. From there, employees can even access self-service options, from time-off requests to requesting a new hire for their team.

If necessary, employees can also use Back to get personal support from an internal expert – whether from HR, finance, or IT.If you’d like to offer world-class employee service at scale and automate to avoid the ‘busyness trap’, you can get a personalized demo of Back.

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