Staffing Shortage? Consider the Universal Worker

Wrenches in businessman's suit jacket pocket

It’s well known that many industries, if not all, have been experiencing staffing shortages since the pandemic began. Employers are trying their best to fill the open positions. But all the marketing and recruiting efforts may not be enough to fill open positions in nearly all industries. Understaffing, loss of corporate knowledge, turnover, and the resulting stress on the existing staff can surely increase the likelihood of workplace injuries.

This is why many employers are turning to the “universal worker.”  By definition, primarily for healthcare workers, Law Insider notes that universal worker means that a direct care nursing staff member may perform other duties to assist with dietary, laundry, housekeeping activities, and other services directly related to meeting the needs of the resident.  Safety has often been referred to as the responsibility of everyone, so now people are expanding that notion into the job descriptions.

In any facility, all workers should be taught to help identify hazards and help reduce them. If someone sees a wet floor – no matter what department or job title – they should be trained to block the area and clean and/or alert the appropriate department to eliminate the spill. Now, using the term universal worker simply puts those added tasks, that most perform anyway, into the job description. This is a way to identify proper training needs and to properly inform employees of the job duties expected of them. Although there is not much published research or information around a universal worker in any industry other than healthcare, the concept is being adopted by many industries as a need to fulfill many tasks with limited staff.

We have all seen restaurant workers take your order, then go on to perform many other duties until they return to deliver your food. It makes little sense that an employee would sit idle while someone else seats customers, sets tables, cooks the food, or busses the tables until your server is needed at your table again. This would result in a waste of time and money as well as lower employee morale. The term universal worker is basically formalizing the common expression, “all hands on deck.” In a storm, a ship’s captain may yell “all hands on deck” to command all crewmembers to assist in navigating the storm. Sometimes a workday may feel like a storm and having as many people as possible lend a hand tends to make things run smoother to get the job done effectively as well as safely.

Changing job descriptions to include more tasks and asking employees to take on more roles than usual requires more safety training and possibly added compensation. Zip Recruiter’s salary center states that the Universal Worker Assisted Living position includes a salary that is generally increased by 2% annually. However, the pay increase alone is usually not enough to motivate staff to take on more responsibilities. Employers should also encourage employees to work together more often, recognize those that go above and beyond, and increase the safety culture of the organization by cross-training employees and ensuring all safety protocols are followed. New-hire orientation often has to be expanded to include any new duties and expectations. Recurrent safety training for all employees also takes on more importance as people are performing tasks that may be new to them.

The universal worker may be a helpful solution for many businesses as the applicant pool becomes shallower. The increased teamwork and organizational communication can definitely improve productivity, but it must be managed properly to avoid an increase in fatigue or burnout that may result in more workplace injuries. To learn more about workplace safety check out MEMIC’s Safety Director resources available to all policyholders.