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  • Emma Bowkett

Why interactions between staff and customers are more important than you might think

Every day there are an estimated 250 million touchpoints between essential workers and residents in the communities they serve. We believe there is an opportunity to make these micro-interactions both more positive and more frequent, hence the

providence of our Essential Mix project.

The benefits of increasing these micro interactions are threefold: 1. for the resident, 2. for the organisation 3. and for the employee. This article will focus on the benefits for the employee.

The literature highlights ample benefits for staff members in connecting with residents. These benefits include:

  • Decreases in job burnout

  • Greater employee motivation through a pro-social impact

  • Greater appreciation for essential workers and the spaces that they operate in

  • Increases in staff subjective well being

Decrease in job burnout

Service related jobs or essential worker roles like being a bus driver or a shop worker, are at higher risk of job burnout according to Lubbadeh (2020) and Maslach (1981) . Particularly because essential workers tend to experience greater emotional and physical burdens in their role, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic (Catungal, 2021).

Job burnout is loosely defined as a ‘prolonged susceptibility to stress at work’, which can lead to absenteeism, job turnover, bad job attitudes and poor job performance; this all has the potential to spread across an organisational culture and to other employees (Lubbadeh, 2020).

One study by Chen and Kao (2013) revealed the link between job burnout and the role of bus drivers. The drivers that they studied were found to be particularly susceptible to burnout due to problems with equipment and road conditions, but importantly negative interactions between drivers and passengers were found to be a primary catalyst towards burnout. These types of negative interactions included verbal abuse, conflict over fare evasions and dealing with customer complaints. This type of burnout was found to impair personal health and increase aberrant driving, highlighting that negative social interactions have a significant effect on driver behaviour.

Burnout caused by negative social interactions has a detrimental effect on levels of stress, poor mental health and job turnover (Lubbadeh, 2020). We hypothesise that by encouraging more positive micro-interactions the impact would be significant towards decreasing job burnout, aiding stronger job retention and promoting positive relationships between staff and customers.

Greater employee motivation through experiencing pro-social impact

Encouraging greater interaction between staff and customers and providing feedback on the positive impact of those interactions has a strong impact on prosocial behaviour.

A pro-social impact refers to having a positive difference in the lives of people. Research from Grant (2008) found that linking employees to the pro-social impact of their job is strongly associated with greater employee motivation. In surveying employees they found that having a positive impact on society can be more important to employees than financial rewards.

Crucially employees can be motivated to have a pro-social impact by increasing the contact that they have with customers and allowing employees to observe the positive impact that this contact has.

In Grant’s 2008 study, Police Officers were exposed to stories of how their department had made a difference in the community, which opened up a dialogue between the Police and the residents in the community. One Officer remarked how hearing first hand the pro-social impact that they were having had a positive effect on his mental health and officer morale in general.

In our own fieldwork we have seen the positive effect that pro-social engagements have had on Tesco workers in Maryhill, Glasgow. Employees at this Tesco are encouraged to have more informal interactions with customers such as helping at food banks, hosting family days and summer food programmes for young people. We observed that this pro-social behaviour motivated staff to continue these acts and fundamentally they enjoyed the relationships that were built as a result.

We have also been working with the Law Enforcement Team in Hammersmith and have observed the gratitude they elicit when they have gone above and beyond to support residents in the community, such as helping to find a lost dog or helping an injured man to get to the hospital. Through these more informal outreaches into the community employees were able to see impact of their behaviour which would motivate them to continue these acts.

Considering the findings of Grant's 2008 research and our insights into the prosocial impact of Tesco employees and LET officers, we hypothesise that essential workers who perform and witness the impact of their prosocial acts are more motivated in their role and are better placed to continue to have a pro-social impact.

Greater appreciation for essential workers and the spaces that they operate in

We further contend that greater interaction between employees and customers/residents will lead to a more favourable public opinion towards essential workers.

A study by Edwards et al (1977) looked at how increasing minimal interactions between high school students and bus drivers has a positive effect on the perception of drivers and the customers' experience on the bus. These types of interactions included greetings like "hello", "bye", "how's your day going?"

The experiment looked at two groups of students riding on the same bus with the same driver, one being a control group and the other being an experimental group. They looked at how often students greeted drivers and how they responded when the driver initiated a greeting. They then surveyed the students to find out about their experiences. The study found that when drivers initiated greetings students felt that their experience on the bus was more pleasant and they thought their driver was more friendly. They also found that after the experiment, social relationships between the driver and student had continued.

Overall more interactions between customers and essential workers encourages greater appreciation for essential workers and it elicits a humanising response in which customers and workers can better connect.

Increase in staff subjective well being

Recent research by Gunaydin et al (2020) found that micro interactions with essential workers, for instance with your bus driver, has a positive effect on overall subjective well being.

The report looked at two studies, the first looked at how often passengers on a bus would say "thank you" to their driver and asked the passengers to report on their life satisfaction. The findings were that more positive social interactions with your driver correlates with higher levels of life satisfaction and wellbeing.

The second study asked passengers what their sense of wellbeing was after interacting with their driver. Half of the participants were told to initiate positive interactions like "thank you" and the other half were told not to speak to the driver. The findings were that people who had a positive interaction with the driver had a higher sense of wellbeing after their journey.

This study shows us that greater interactions between essential workers and customers has an overwhelmingly positive effect on the customer. Though it does not confirm that it has a similarly positive effect on drivers we strongly believe that this type of customer led interaction would make the driver feel seen, humanised and as a result happier, so these forms of interactions should be more actively encouraged.

This is a research gap that we wish to address in our Essential Mix project - what impact do these interactions have on essential workers’ wellbeing?


From the literature and our field research to date, we see ample evidence to suggest that encouraging micro-interactions between customers/residents and essential workers would have an overwhelmingly positive effect for employees, and ultimately the organisations they work for. We look forward to exploring this hypothesis further as the Essential Mix progresses.

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