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Jun 30, 2022 | by What Works Centre for Wellbeing

Working culture matters for mental health and productivity, financial case study shows

Case studies can be a useful tool to aid our understanding of workplace wellbeing and what works to improve it. By assessing specific groups and contexts, we can examine how job quality factors impact employee mental health and performance in real life situations. 

We have already looked at how job quality plays a key role in staff productivity within a retail case study

Let’s now take a look at the key findings from our case study on what matters for mental health and productivity in a financial services firm.


Key Findings

The findings are based on responses provided by an international financial services firm to Britain’s Healthiest Workplace Survey between 2015 and 2019.

In the organisation studied:

  • Poor employee mental health can be related to shift work, lack of flexible hours, unsupportive managers and strained working relationships.
  • Bullying and not being supported to manage stress were two factors jointly related to staff mental health and productivity.
  • The negative relationship between poor job quality and mental health and productivity may be stronger for ethnic minorities.
  • Working from home increased productivity loss, while unrealistic time pressures were related to decreased productivity loss.

These suggest that both negative psychological experiences at work and access to flexibility can lead to productivity loss, independent of employee mental health status.

Evaluation measures

Employee productivity loss was defined as absenteeism (missing work) and presenteeism (working whilst impaired). It was measured with the Work Productivity and Activity Impairment tool, assessing hours worked, hours missed and degree of impairment when working to give a percentage result where 0% is no loss and 100% complete loss.

Mental ill-health was defined in line with poor mental health and was measured using the Kessler Six Distress Scale. A higher overall score represents higher levels of psychological distress.

Job quality was measured through responses to individual statements about professional relationships and workplace culture. 

Racial discrimination and general discrimination in the workplace were only asked in 2018 and 2019 waves of Britain’s Healthiest Workplace Survey, so these were analysed separately in this case study (as shown in fig 1). As was the association of relationship factors and other work factors with mental health and productivity for white and minority ethnicities.

Mental distress by ethnicity, showing increased distress for ethnic minorities compared to white employees on all five factors

Productivity by ethnicity, showing increased productivity loss for ethnic minorities employees

Fig 1. Magnitude of relationships for mental health and productivity, by ethnicity.

Recommendations for action

While we can’t be confident of how representative this case is of the sector on a whole, case study evidence is an important source of learning about job quality and workplace wellbeing in real-world settings. 

Exploratory recommendations from this financial sector case study include:

  • Employers paying particular attention to wellbeing of employees working in roles with less flexibility to help support them to develop coping skills
  • Taking an organisational approach which targets individual behaviour changes while also addressing several job quality factors through work culture changes

A good organisational approach to employee wellbeing is one that measures, tracks and, where necessary, improves job quality to prevent mental ill health and sustain productivity.

Employers, HR staff and wellbeing leads can view the full briefing for a breakdown of specific recommendations and implications.

What do we need to know more about

The relationship between working arrangements and productivity in the case study may seem conflicting. We might have expected greater flexibility in terms of place and hours to be related to increased productivity, however the opposite was found.

This could be because at the firm studied working from home is the exception rather than the norm. Employees could be working from home because they are unwell, rather than taking a sick day, which would negatively impact their productivity.

The data from this case study predates the global pandemic by up to five years. As the implications of the virus saw a widespread shift in working culture, particularly in terms of flexibility and home working, we should be cautious in how we apply these current findings.

To better understand whether this is sector specific, or time-bound, we need more understanding of the impact of Covid-19 on mental health and productivity in the workplace.

More evaluations are also needed on the role of loneliness in the workplace, and how this can be impactfully addressed.

An evidence gap remains as to whether relationship factors or other factors are more important for mental health and productivity in the working environment.

Further reading

Explore our related case study that shows how job quality plays a key role in staff productivity in the retail sector.

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