Background The 1-month prevalence of any mental disorder in employees ranges from 10.5% to 18.5%. Mental disorders are responsible for substantial losses in employee productivity in both absenteeism and presenteeism. Potential work related factors contributing to mental difficulties are of increasing interest to employers. Some data suggests that being sales staff, call centre operator, nurse or teacher increases psychological distress. One aspect of these occupations is that there is an interaction with the public. The aim of this study is to evaluate whether employees who interact with the public are at greater risk of psychological distress. Methods Data was collected from two studies. In study one 11,259 employees (60% female; mean age 40-years ± SD 10-years) from six employers responded to the Health and Work Performance Questionnaire (HPQ) which contained a measure of psychological distress, the Kessler 6 (K6). Employees were coded as to whether or not they interacted with the public. Binomial logistic regression was performed on this data to determine the odds ratio (OR) for moderate or high psychological distress in employees that interacted with the public. Study two administered the HPQ and K6 to sales employees of a large Australian bank (N = 2,129; 67% female; mean age 39-years SD 10-years). This questionnaire also probed how many contacts individuals had with the public in the past week. Analysis of variance was used to determine if the number of contacts was related to psychological distress. Results In study one the prevalence of psychological distress in those that interacted and did not interact with the public were 19% and 15% respectively (P < 0.001). Interacting with the public was associated with an increased OR of 1.3 (P < 0.001) for moderate to high levels of psychological distress. In study two employees with less than 25 contacts with the public per week had a lower K6 score than those who had ≥ 25 contacts per week (P = 0.016). Conclusions The results of the current study are indicative that interaction with the public increases levels of psychological distress. Employees dealing with the public may be an employee subgroup that could be targeted by employers with mental health interventions.