To tackle employee burnout, companies need to assess just how burned out their staff members are—and why. Many organizations conduct surveys to gain this sort of insight, but serious flaws in how those surveys are designed often lead to bad results. Well-intentioned leaders, following an inaccurate roadmap of where the problems lie, end up wasting time, energy, and resources on the wrong things. For example, they may ask people if overwork is an issue and then try to reduce the load, when the real problem is more psychological.
A seminal paper in the Journal of Vocational Behavior defines burnout as “a reaction to chronic occupational stress” characterized by emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and a “lack of professional efficacy (i.e., the tendency to evaluate one’s work negatively).” So it’s multifaceted. But when you take all those things together, the researchers found, the polar opposite of burnout becomes clear: It’s engagement.
That certainly aligns with my consulting experience. Working with hundreds of companies, I’ve observed that managers can counteract burnout by shoring up engagement—that is, helping employees feel more connected and committed to the organization and motivated by the work they’re doing. This includes addressing challenges that make it tougher for people to do their jobs, such as a lack of support from managers, a lack of confidence in teammates, and daily work that doesn’t line up with employees’ own values and goals.
The trouble is, even at companies that try to step back and assess engagement as an underlying factor, questionnaires often run into psychological hurdles that skew results. Here are two of the biggest culprits:
Social desirability bias. When employees are asked to complete surveys, their responses can be shaped by social desirability bias—the impulse to present themselves in a positive light so their bosses will think well of them. The survey becomes an exercise in “impression management” rather than a tool for change, because respondents don’t want to suggest that they personally have a problem or can’t handle their work. Even when workplace surveys are administered by third parties, as they often are, studies have found that anonymity does not completely erase the social desirability response bias. That’s in part because people don’t want to think of themselves in a negative light.
If you ask them to respond to a statement such as “I feel overworked” or “I feel burned out,” they’re more likely to say no than yes. It puts the focus on them and their feelings, rather than how the organization or the work is structured. It’s better to ask them to respond to a statement like this: “Generally, I believe my workload is reasonable for my role.” That way, people are assessing the firm or the role, not themselves.
Similarly, I’ve found that “we” questions can be more effective than “I” questions. For example, you might ask employees to rate the accuracy of this statement: “We are encouraged to be innovative even though some of our initiatives may not succeed.” By referring to “our initiatives” rather than “my initiatives,” you can remove judgment about the individual from the equation—and elicit more candor.
Acquiescence bias. The other psychological hurdle, acquiescence bias, is the tendency to say we agree as a default response to survey statements, particularly when our knowledge is limited or none of the available answers fit.
Consider this example: Some organizations ask people whether the executives are great role models for employees. But many employees don’t have enough access to the executive team to form an accurate judgment. If that’s not one of the options in the survey, people who feel that way may simply select “agree” or choose a “neutral” response. And that’s not telling you anything meaningful about role-modeling in the organization.
Those psychological factors aside, here are two other flaws to look for in workplace survey design:
Double-barrel questions. I see these frequently. They’re statements with two components that may be totally unrelated, such as “I am motivated to perform my best work and we are good at holding people accountable.” Those are separate observations; one doesn’t hinge on the other. So people should be asked to respond to two distinct statements: “I am motivated to perform my best work in this organization” and “We hold ourselves and our team members accountable for results.”
Ambiguousness. Sometimes questions are downright confusing because they’re indirect. For instance, surveys may ask “Do you have a best friend at work?” in an effort to measure how much employees enjoy being there. But that question can mean different things to different people. Is it asking whether you’ve chosen someone to be your “best friend at work”? Or whether one of your best friends in the world happens to be a colleague? Also, some people have one or two “best friends,” while others have a dozen or more. And the response won’t give managers any clear or actionable information. After all, you can have a best friend at work and still be disengaged and burned out.
Other sources of ambiguity include double negatives that leave people unsure what the question even is (“I don’t feel that my company fails to provide adequate resources to enable me to do my job”) and rating systems that switch directions partway through (where “5” means something positive, then something negative).
By addressing these flaws in survey design and asking questions that give employees the freedom, clarity, and psychological safety they need to be fully honest, organizations can get more accurate results and identify the right problems to fix. But even then, there’s another pitfall to watch out for. In hopes of gathering as much information as possible, some companies make engagement surveys mandatory or offer incentives for participation. I always discourage that.
Explain to employees why their responses are important, and then see what happens. If participation is particularly low in one unit and high in another, that can be a sign that certain parts of the company are engaged while others are not. Whether an employee chooses to participate is, in itself, an important piece of feedback.