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Can't We Just Ask Them? Why Employees Hesitate to Share Feelings About Company Culture and Wellbeing

Engagement surveys form the bedrock of many organizations' efforts to understand and enhance company culture and workforce wellbeing. Despite their widespread use, employers often grapple with a frustrating reality: Employees aren't always forthcoming, especially when it comes to answering questions about culture and wellbeing. 

 

Why do employees hesitate to share their true feelings, even in surveys designed to elicit feedback that would improve their work environment, and what can be done to gain more insights into employees’ actual lived reality at work? 

 

To answer these questions, first we need to understand the barriers at play, including why employees find it difficult to reflect on their own experiences, and why quantitative proxies for culture and wellness aren’t a substitute for qualitative insights. Once we answer those questions, we’ll demonstrate how psycholinguistics can be employed to understand employees’ actual lived workplace experience.

 

Wellbeing and Company Culture are Abstract Concepts


Wellbeing is a multifaceted concept, encompassing physical, emotional, and mental states, which often makes it challenging to quantify or consistently define. Articulating one’s feelings about wellbeing can be difficult because it involves subjective experiences and perceptions that can vary greatly from person to person. Similarly, workplace culture is abstract and complex, and when asked about it, employees often focus more on the objective and tangible aspects of their work environment, such as workload, relationships with colleagues, or access to resources and support, which they perceive as directly impacting their wellbeing.

 

The complexity of wellbeing also extends to its determinants, which can include a wide range of factors like work environment, relationships, health, and personal circumstances. As a result, employees may not always be fully aware of or able to articulate the influence of workplace culture on their wellbeing. They may attribute their feelings of wellbeing or lack thereof to specific incidents or factors within their immediate work context, rather than recognizing the impact of their personal life, or the broader cultural influences, that may be impacting their wellbeing at work.

 

Wellbeing is not only about the absence of negative feelings but also the presence of positive ones, like happiness, fulfillment, and a sense of purpose. Both the negative and positive aspects of wellbeing often involve deeply personal and intangible aspects of one's life, making it challenging to answer questions specifically about how their workplace or workplace culture is impacting their “personal” wellbeing.

 

Understanding Wellbeing Requires Self-Awareness


A lack of self-awareness can also hinder employees' ability to effectively respond to questions about wellbeing. Self-awareness refers to the ability to recognize and understand one's own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. In the context of wellbeing, employees need to be sufficiently self-aware of the factors in their work environment that contribute to their wellbeing, but oftentimes they may not understand the impact that aspects of their environment have on their mental and emotional health.

 

For example, an employee may not realize that their long commute to work is causing them stress and impacting their overall wellbeing both at work and at home. Without this awareness, the employee may struggle to accurately identify the sources of their stress when responding to questions, leading to superficial or inaccurate responses, or responses that do not fully reflect their true experiences.

 

Wellbeing is Often Stigmatized 

 

The stigma surrounding mental health and wellbeing in the workplace is often a significant barrier to honest responses. While engagement survey platforms recommend asking direct questions about employee’s feelings toward wellbeing or their employer’s approach to maintaining a healthy working environment, the responses to these questions can be heavily filtered or impacted by employee’s apprehensions.

 

For example, engagement survey platform Culture Amp recommends that employers ask employees questions about how they perceive their organization’s stance on wellbeing, whether they believe employee wellbeing is a company priority and whether their manager genuinely cares about their wellbeing. Bamboo HR recommends inquiring into employee satisfaction and motivations to better understand workforce wellbeing. And Qualtrics suggests questions that probe employees' wellbeing both at home and at work, since stressors that are experienced at home can also impact how employees perform at work.

 

Despite efforts to promote mental health awareness, the stigma surrounding mental health often causes employees to hesitate to disclose their true feelings or concerns. They may worry that revealing their feelings or challenges could be seen as a sign of weakness or incompetence. They may also fear that disclosing their struggles may impact their job security, career advancement opportunities, or relationships with colleagues and supervisors. This fear can lead to reluctance in being honest in their responses, as they may feel pressure to present themselves positively or conform to perceived norms of mental resilience in the workplace.

 

Proxies Offer Limited Insight Into Culture and Wellbeing


Because of the multitude of challenges of asking employees directly about their wellbeing and perceptions of workplace culture, employers often resort to using proxies like employee turnover and productivity, engagement, performance, and retention to measure wellbeing and culture. While these proxies provide some insights, they provide only a single lens into the realities of the employee experience. Using proxies to measure employee wellbeing and workplace culture is like trying to assess the health of a plant by only looking at its leaves.

 

Proxies like turnover and productivity often offer a narrow view of the overall picture, and sometimes fail to capture the full range of factors that contribute to employee satisfaction and organizational culture. For example, high turnover rates may not always indicate poor wellbeing, as they could be influenced by external factors like job market trends, market dynamics, or changing organizational needs.

 

Proxies also reflect past trends or outcomes rather than current or real-time situations. For example, high turnover rates may indicate issues with employee wellbeing or workplace culture that have already impacted the organization, but they do not provide immediate insights into the root causes of these issues or how to address them in the present. Additionally, relying solely on proxies can lead to a reactive rather than proactive approach to addressing employee wellbeing and workplace culture. By the time issues are reflected in proxies like turnover or engagement, they may have already had a significant impact on the organization. This can make it challenging to address underlying issues in a timely manner and prevent future issues from arising.

  

This highlights the importance of using a combination of quantitative data from proxies and qualitative insights from aggregated employee survey responses to gain a more comprehensive understanding of workforce wellbeing and culture. However, as employees aren't always forthcoming in their qualitative responses, quantitative insights from proxies can be combined with psycholinguistic insights to gain a far more complete picture of workforce wellbeing and the culture that they experience.


Measuring Culture and Wellbeing with Psycholinguistics 

 

Psycholinguistics can be used to better understand workforce wellness and culture by deciphering patterns in language that signals underlying workforce cognitive processes and attitudes. It can be applied to aggregated and anonymized language data in written or verbal form from, for example, survey responses, 360 performance reviews, messaging platforms, and ticketing systems. Data can be aggregated at department- or team-levels, or aggregated to the company-level to provide a view into workforce culture and wellbeing insights that suits your objective.


It's important to note that psycholinguistics focuses on the cognitive processes involved in language use and comprehension, rather than on sentiment analysis or the emotional content of language. While emotions can influence language use, psycholinguistics seeks to understand the broader cognitive mechanisms and psychological phenomena that underlies language.

 

As such, psycholinguistics can be used to better understand employees’ states of mind based not on what employees say when they respond to questions, but rather based on how they respond to questions. For example, people who are experiencing psychological distress tend to use more “self-focused” language (I, me, my) and negative emotion words as a reflection of their own preoccupation with their negative emotional state. They also tend to use less “communal” language (we, us, our) as a reflection of the social withdrawal that is often symptomatic of distress.


The following insights were captured by aggregating language data at the company level, and then using psycholinguistics to measure changes in workforce stress, anxiety, and cognitive load over time to understand how workforce wellbeing manifests within the company.



Employee feedback is crucial for understanding and improving company culture and workforce wellbeing, but employees often hold back on sharing their true feelings. This reluctance stems from the complexities of articulating wellbeing, which is multifaceted and subjective. Similarly, culture is complex, leading employees to focus on tangible aspects of their work environment rather than broader influences. Additionally, self-awareness issues and the stigma around mental health contribute to employees' hesitance. To gain genuine insights, employers often resort to proxies like turnover and productivity, but these offer limited perspectives. Combining quantitative data with psycholinguistic analysis of survey language can provide a more profound understanding of workforce wellbeing and culture.


If you're an employer or engagement survey provider, and you're not getting the complete picture from your engagement surveys, contact us - we're here to help.


Please note: We kindly request attribution if you reference the research described in this blog post, as acknowledgment fosters collaboration and integrity in the scientific community.

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