The Best Interview Question to Gauge Burnout Among Candidates

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Aug 19, 2021

If you haven’t noticed, employee burnout is at drastically high levels. And when you’re hiring new people to join your company, you’d ideally like to ensure that your new hires have some ability to stave off at least some of that burnout.

In the new study from Leadership IQ, “Employee Burnout in 2021,” we learned that 71% of leaders believe that they’re going to have their best employees quit because of burnout. We also learned that 84% of leaders say they’ve heard their employees use language indicating that they’re burned out. While that’s a disturbing number, it actually provides hiring managers with an opportunity; namely, if you ask the right interview question, you can quickly discover just how susceptible your new hires are to suffering from burnout.

I should note that, in an ideal world, your company will take steps to combat and assuage burnout. But let’s be realistic here: Most organizations aren’t doing anywhere near enough to fix employee burnout issues. So if you want your new hires to thrive in the current environment, you’ll probably want to hire people who’ve shown at least some resistance to burnout.

To assess whether your candidates are currently suffering from burnout, and thus how likely they’ll be to suffer from burnout at your company, ask them this question: Could you tell me about a time when you felt burned out at work? 

This is an incredibly simple question, and that’s by design. Far too many hiring managers try to make their questions easier for candidates to answer, and they’ll add giveaway words to the question. So instead of a truly open-ended question, they’ll ask something like, “Could you tell me about a time when you felt burned out at work and how you overcame that?”

Unfortunately, as soon as they add those extra words (i.e., “and how you overcame that”), they’re essentially telling the candidate that the only correct answer to the question involves sharing a success story. 

By contrast, when you leave the question painfully open-ended, you’re giving candidates license to share the real truth about their levels of burnout. And that’s where you’re going to learn whether your candidates are actually fried and exhausted.

Here’s a real-life answer that was given by a candidate to one of our clients who asked, “Could you tell me about a time when you felt burned out at work?”

“I once worked in an area where several issues with my boss led to complete apathy in my job. Business was booming, and there wasn’t enough staff to keep up; we were always overworked and exhausted. I was given 30% to 40% more work than other people in the same job, with no acknowledgement or thanks. Due to the overwhelming workload, I couldn’t meet service standards and was actually penalized on reviews. There was also an “us vs. them” mentality with another area, and it seemed like the other area would always “win” since my boss wouldn’t stand up for us. Whenever I discussed these issues with my boss, he didn’t listen. I never saw him take any action on my concerns. I received a “yeah, yeah, we’re working on it” to try to get me out of his office as quickly as possible. I never saw change. I didn’t see any other option but to seek a new job.”  

While it’s entirely possible that this person worked for an absolute nightmare of a boss, it’s also concerning that this candidate seems more focused on finding the reasons why something won’t work than they are on finding solutions. 

Also, notice their use of words from our burnout study, like “exhausted,” “apathy,” and “overwhelming.” Will they suffer from burnout in your company? Sure, you might not burden this new hire with a situation that’s quite as bad as their previous employer, but does this candidate sound like someone with lots of psychological resources to fend off burnout?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, here’s an answer from a candidate applying at that same company that speaks to a greater capacity to stop burnout, with more robust levels of resilience and optimism:

“I’ll admit that I was somewhat burned out after we had some layoffs and our business slowed. During slower periods throughout the year, I did find it difficult to stay focused on the tasks I had in front of me. To overcome what I felt was kind of a creeping burnout and demotivation in my brain, I decided to complete those tasks quickly and accurately and then ask my boss for special projects or tasks that needed to be completed so I could keep myself busy. When he ran out of ideas for me, I pitched him on letting me streamline one or more cumbersome processes related to document control. My idea was to create an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of documents that came through me for editing, and where they were off to next. It took lots of searching, hugely increasing my Excel skills with a dozen free online tutorials, and reaching out to experts on tech support boards. After three months I got the tool implemented. It’s saved our department about 10 hours of tedious work per week and not only did it hugely stimulate my brain, it also removed an irritant for my teammates.”

Notice how this candidate shares, in great detail, the steps they took to combat their nascent burnout. Their language is solution-oriented and evidence of resilience and optimism. They could have become fully burned out, but instead, their answer details their path to reengaging themselves and squelching burnout before it could take hold. If your company is looking for candidates that can squelch their own burnout, this candidate might be a good fit.

As we learned in our study, burnout is a very real issue in the vast majority of companies. But while we can feel bad about its causes and empathize with burned-out employees, we ideally want to hire people who will be able to fend off burnout. We still would like to fix burnout companywide, but until leaders get serious about doing that, we need candidates with the resilience and optimism to handle it on their own.

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