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Jun 16, 2022 | by What Works Centre for Wellbeing

Job quality plays key role in staff productivity, retail case study shows

How important is job quality for employee productivity? Does it affect a person’s performance above and beyond the impact it has on their mental health?

In this week’s blog, we share some of the key findings from our latest briefing which looks at the relationship between the working environment and culture, and staff productivity. Its findings suggest that negative psychological work experiences can lead to productivity loss, independent of employee mental health status.

We analysed survey data on working conditions, mental health and productivity at a large retail company, and found that the work environment, relationships and culture play a key direct role on individual productivity and performance. 

In the organisation studied, four groups of employees were identified based on their scores on mental health and productivity, defined through good/bad mental health and high/low productivity. These groups were: 

  • Content high-performers
  • Discontent high-performers
  • Directly at risk
  • Overworked.

Four distinctive groups emerged

The responses were provided by one retail organisation that participated in the 2018 and 2019 waves of Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey. Jobs at this organisation varied from manual labour and customer-facing roles to office, desk-based work. 

Two thirds of respondents were female, and two thirds reported an annual income below £40,000. Over 70% reported no serious health conditions. 

While we cannot be confident of how representative this case is of the sector on a whole, case study evidence is an important source of learning about how the different job quality aspects work in real-world settings. They can be used alongside other research to learn more about what works, how, and why various actions make a difference to wellbeing and productivity.

How were productivity, mental ill-health and job quality measured?

Employee productivity loss was defined as:

  • Absenteeism – missing work – and:
  • Presenteeism – working while impaired.

This was measured with the Work Productivity and Activity Impairment (WPAI) tool, a composite measure including:

  • Hours actually worked
  • Hours missed from work due to health problems
  • Degree of impairment when working.

Results are expressed as a percentage of hours lost in the prior week, where 0% represents no productivity loss, and 100% represents complete productivity loss. 

Mental ill-health was defined in line with mental distress or poor mental health. It was measured using the six-question Kessler scale, which asks how respondents felt in the last 30 days. It measures if participants feel:

  • Nervous
  • Hopeless
  • Restless or fidgety
  • That everything is an effort 
  • So depressed that nothing could cheer you up
  • Worthless.

Responses are added together, giving an overall score of 0 to 24, with a higher score representing higher levels of psychological distress.

Job quality – or psychological work factors – was measured through responses to individual ‘to what extent do you agree with’ statements, in a five-point Likert scale, including:

  • At work, I receive the respect I deserve from my colleagues
  • Relationships at work are strained
  • I have a choice in deciding what I do at work 
  • Staff are always consulted about change at work 
  • I am subject to bullying at work
  • I have unrealistic time pressures
  • My line manager cares about my health and wellbeing 
  • My organisation supports me when I am unwell
  • I am enthusiastic about my job 
  • Discrimination exists in my workplace.

What do the four groups look like?

The graphic below shows a breakdown of the behaviours, psychosocial factors, mental health scores and productivity levels associated with each group:

You can also find the typical sociodemographic characteristics for each group on page 5 of the briefing. 

Key findings from this work

  • Part of the association between poor job quality and loss of productivity is independent of the impact on mental health.
  • All job quality factors were significantly related to the likelihood of productivity loss.
  • The current knowledge base suggests that job quality affects productivity by impacting on mental health, so that the impact of job quality on productivity is an indirect connection.
  • We looked at whether job quality can have a direct effect on productivity loss rather than just through their impact on mental health. We did this by accounting for levels of mental health and related possible influences such as general health and lifestyle.
  • Mental health continues to be the most important factor related to productivity.

Recommendations for action

With these findings, below are the recommendations and implications for employers, HR staff and wellbeing leads. 

In the briefing, we break these down further to share a specific set of recommendations for each of the four types of employees identified above.

Exploratory recommendations from this work include:

  • Training to identify staff who are struggling with mental health, productivity or psychosocial work issues
  • Improving the psychosocial work environment, through: improved communication of time pressures and work-related changes; stress mitigation systems; testing, training and action to support a culture of inclusion and respect
  • Improving ergonomics through workplace provisions
  • Educating on the importance of a healthy lifestyle
  • Offering workplace mental health interventions – eg, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Counselling, Employee Assistance Programme
  • Improving job design, leadership style, wider working conditions and corporate culture.

The adoption of bespoke programmes for specific groups of employees, together with programmes aimed at improving wellbeing in the workplace, may be an effective strategy.

You can find information on what we know about these recommended approaches – and what the evidence tells us about their impact on wellbeing – on page 7 of the briefing. 

What do we need to know more about?

  • More evaluations are needed to understand specifically which actions work to improve both wellbeing and performance. 
  • These findings relate to pre-Covid measurements; some job characteristics are expected to play out differently during and after the pandemic. 
  • This case study evidence is a starting point. More causal evidence is needed about the links between workplace wellbeing and productivity, contextualised in different industry sectors. We also need more information on specific job characteristics and their influence on wellbeing. 


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