Exit Interview: Is Stress the Culprit?

Exit interviews may be a meaningless formality. Most people exiting a job won’t tell the truth—even to a Human Resources representative—about why they’re leaving. There is a social discomfort in calling out a manager the Human Resources rep may be acquainted with, and there also is fear of reprisal. I know because after resigning from a job with an abusive manager and longing to tell my story, I was silenced by the fear that I then would forfeit the ability to use the manager or her boss as a reference. Employees also may be uncomfortable about admitting the job was simply too stressful for them. No one wants to seem like a weakling and no one wants their problem with stress to be reported back to the manager, and then have it affect the manager’s review of the outgoing employee when serving as a reference.

Despite this natural reluctance, a study released in April by job search site Monster shows that more employees finally are linking a high level of stress to their departure.

Monster asked visitors to their site the question, “Has stress from work ever driven you to a job change?” and received more than 6,700 responses. U.S. findings included:

  • 42 percent of respondents answered, “I have purposely changed jobs due to a stressful work environment.”
  • 35 percent of respondents answered, “I thought about changing my job because of a stressful work environment.”
  • 23 percent of respondents answered, “I have never changed my job specifically due to a stressful work environment.”

Other key findings:

  • The most commonly reported workplace stressors include: supervisor relationship (40 percent) amount of work (39 percent), work-life balance (34 percent), and co-worker relationships (31 percent).
  • 61 percent of respondents believe that workplace stress has been the cause of an illness.
  • 46 percent of respondents have missed time at work due to work-related stress; 7 percent report illness so severe it caused hospitalization.
  • 84 percent of respondents claim that their stressful job has affected their personal lives; 26 percent report sleepless nights, 24 percent report depression, 21 percent report family or relationship issues, and 19 percent report physical ailments.
  • The most common methods of coping with work-related stress include: talking to a friend/colleague/spouse (55 percent), exercising (40 percent), eating (35 percent), stepping away from work (35 percent), taking a day off (32 percent), and drinking after work (24 percent).
  • When asked “What does your office do to help alleviate stress in the workplace?” 13 percent of respondents answered, “Extra time-off”; 11 percent answered, “Ability to work from home”; and 66 percent answered, “Nothing.”

Conversations about lowering workplace stress are common, but what I haven’t heard as much about is how to reliably assess employees’ stress level, both while they are on the job and during exit interviews. As noted, most people probably won’t admit—especially to a manager—that they are stressed out, so questions that draw the truth out indirectly are best. As part of the annual performance review, it might be a good idea to include a questionnaire about workplace routines and habits. I would not make it anonymous because the goal is to red flag employees who are overwhelmed by their workload, and work with managers to reorganize and rebalance assignments.

What questions would you ask to measure the employee’s stress level? Here are some I came up with. You could create multiple-choice responses, each with a numerical value attached, so you could add up the values of the responses and create total scores for each returned questionnaire. Scores above a designated point would be considered at the “too-stressed-out” level:

  • What time do you typically leave the office during the week? How often do you have to stay longer than one hour past the official end of your day?
  • How often (if ever) do you have to do work at home at night or on the weekends to meet deadlines and commitments to customers or clients?
  • How often do you check your work e-mail or receive work-related communications such as text messages at night or on the weekends?
  • How often do you find yourself thinking about work at night and on the weekend?
  • How often do you have multiple projects that are all due at the same time?
  • How often are you given deadlines for significant projects that allow for a week or less of preparation?
  • How often do you turn in work you know is not the best you could do because you had to rush around at the last minute to finish it on time?
  • How often are you able to arrange for new deadlines to accommodate additional needed work?
  • How often do you work together with your manager to find solutions to challenges completing a task or project?
  • How often do you find the solution on your own?
  • Are you able to take an hour-long break for lunch? Or do you just bring food back to your desk, continuing to work while you eat?
  • Are there any personal improvements you feel you need to make since starting your job with this company, such as needed weight loss, quitting smoking, drinking fewer alcoholic beverages, or getting more sleep?
  • How often are you currently able to attend family events and personal activities such as a child’s afterschool activity or an after-work exercise or hobby group?

There are many more questions you probably can think to ask, or maybe different questions based on your own experiences and patterns you notice at your company, but whatever you do, you need to go beyond just asking one general “yes”/“no” question about stress.

 I liken it to a doctor’s visit in which the doctor doesn’t ask you if you have a disease, but instead asks about symptoms that may indicate a problem. It works the same way with stress—it’s a condition many don’t think they suffer from, but when you ask about specific stress-related “symptoms,” a different story is told. Come up with your stress-level-measuring questionnaire for current, as well as outgoing, employees. You may be shocked at how often you are able to “diagnose” a severe and chronic case of stress.

Do you measure your employees’ stress levels and then work with managers to arrive at solutions such as better organized and more balanced workloads? Why or why not?