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Optimum Talks Blog

Stop the Stigma | Chapter 2: Engagement Surveys Are Not Enough

by Sandra Boyd + Dr. Bill Howatt
December 9, 2020


The Scenario

A senior director expressed concerns that his large multinational company is not dealing with the reality of how employees are feeling. During the first six months of COVID-19, employees and leadership rallied together, working around the clock to focus on ensuring the business had a sustainable, online strategy and that employees were set up to effectively work from home. Now, leaders have seen a huge shift in employees’ energy and how they are showing up in the workplace. Many are feeling the stress of around-the-clock work and fear of losing their jobs. They are stressed, worried, and at risk of burning out.

Changes in behaviour are noticeable. Employees are slower to respond to requests; are more disengaged in online meetings (e.g., turning off their cameras and on mute); and are exhibiting stress behaviours such as irritability and anger, all of which are signs of increased presenteeism. From multiple discussions with senior leaders, there is an increased awareness of how stress is negatively impacting the business. Human resources data is showing an increase in sick leave and short-term disability, along with declines in performance metrics.

With all the evidence that things are challenging, the management team is confused as to how the most recent employee engagement survey results were at an all-time high, which senior leaders and HR were touting as a win for the company. These comments put members of the management team in an awkward spot because they did not want to look like naysayers by saying something that might contradict the engagement news. But quietly, many were asking themselves and trusted peers, “How is it possible the engagement survey is telling a much different story than what people are saying and what the HR data is showing?”

Reactions from a Leadership Lens

Engagement surveys serve their purpose, but with the increased concern of mental health before and during COVID, isolation and loneliness are being amplified. Leaders need to move beyond engagement surveys, as they do not provide the data needed to understand what is happening and what is working. To support employees’ needs, it is important to capture the right data to provide insight into the employee experience in the workplace and the stressors that exist. Organizations need to measure things such as the true effectiveness of their HR programs and supports, how psychologically safe leaders are, employees’ level of resiliency and concern of psychosocial hazards such as stress and fatigue, and productivity issues.

As we enter the winter months, COVID’s impact continues. A collective hangover can be expected after the holidays, with many employees feeling even more isolated and stressed about job security and their ability to cope.

Leaders are managing during unparalleled times, not knowing what the next few months will bring personally, economically, politically, or in their business. It is important that they focus not only on managing operational matters but also on supporting employees’ health and success. Training on how to have meaningful conversations to support employees will help. Leaders do not need to have all the answers; they must be willing to ask questions, care, and follow through on what they say.

Reactions from a Behavioural Science Lens

Stress accumulates when not dealt with. We can put on 10 pounds and not notice or tolerate or accept it. This pattern of not doing anything to correct a trend can result in putting on a few pounds each year and slowing us down. Similarly, accumulating stress can negatively impact mental agility. We all can relate to a time when we were stressed and something that normally may not have been upsetting felt intense.

Many leaders forget or have not learned that exposure to constant drains can decrease employees’ ability to perform. With stress often comes fear. During this pandemic, over 3 million people in Canada at one point lost their jobs. This organization is an excellent example of why it is important to have the right data and conversations.

The Takeaways

  • The bottom line is the bottom line. Mental illness causes a $50B economic burden each year in Canada and 6 billion in lost productivity[1] – how much is it costing your company if you don’t capture the right data and train your managers on how to have honest conversations about how your employees are really doing?
  • Rather than rely on the data from engagement surveys, organizations should invest in a benchmarking tool that provides employees and employers access to data that can facilitate the right conversations.
  • Balancing the demands of operations and caring during non-pandemic and pandemic times is challenging. Investing in training leaders to be psychologically safe leaders can make them better able to facilitate the right conversations.


Want to join the conversation? Tell us your story about mental health in the workplace by emailing

Does your organization require training or tools to better support mental health in-house? Contact us to discuss your unique challenges and to arrange a free demo to learn how our integrated services can help.


Missed Chapter 1: My Boss is a COVID Bully? Read it here.


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[1] 4 Deloitte Insights. (2019). The ROI in Workplace Mental Health Programs: Good for People, Good for Business.


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