Is discretionary effort the same as employee engagement?

We all want  our staff to go the extra mile, but what does that actually mean? 

We look at the ins and outs of discretionary behaviour.

When it comes to implementing behaviour change at work, lots of stars need to align. 

For a long time, it was considered that humans were primarily logic-based thinkers. Employers have always placed a high value on workers who display strong logical thinking or reasoning skills. It means they’re making decisions on factual data rather than clouding judgement with, shock horror, emotion. So far, so macho.

Yet for employees to be truly engaged at work, so that a company can transform behaviour and increase productivity and output, it’s emotional thinking that drives performance and boosts your bottom line.

When employees care about doing a great job – when they are engaged – they use what’s called discretionary effort.

So, is this where HR managers should be focusing their attention to drive business success stories, improving performance? 


Discretionary effort is often called ‘going the extra mile’. If your employee is committed to your organisation, it’s something they’re likely to be doing on a regular basis. It’s the difference between what you have to do, and what you want to do in the workplace.

Sodexo wanted to understand a bit more about the way employees think, so we asked behavioural psychologist Dr Fenja Ziegler, Principle Lecturer in the School of Psychology, University of Lincoln, to explain more about the way people make decisions at work.

She says, “We’re not rational beings. When people build emotional connections with their employer, they will naturally give more than minimum effort. This factor, which is intrinsically linked to engagement, rather than logical thought, is called ‘Discretionary Effort’.”

As Kevin Kruse, author of Employee Engagement 2.0. says, “This means the engaged computer programmer works overtime when needed, without being asked. This means the engaged retail clerk picks up the trash on the store floor, even if the boss isn’t watching.” 

As It’s this kind of employee behaviour that leads to greater quality and productivity at work.

What manager wouldn’t want a piece of that?


Engaged employees will go beyond the call of duty in order to get the best possible results from their work. They’re ready to put in the hard graft for the business and do more to help you succeed.

Sodexo’s ‘Move, Mould, Motivate: An Essential Guide to Employee Engagement’ study reveals that 82% of engaged employees say they go above and beyond what is expected of them (HCI Research).

Engaged employees are also hungry for a challenge. They have a capacity to take on fresh responsibilities, relishing the chance to try their hand at new skills. And they’re happy to hold themselves accountable for their output. The plain fact is, 90% of engaged workers feel challenged and utilised at work.

When people are given free rein to make a meaningful difference within the organisation, they feel valued by their managers and know their presence matters. It all means they want to be there, just as much as you do. And they’ll get results because they want to. 


If you’re thinking that discretionary effort sounds too good to be true, you might be barking up the wrong tree. Going the extra mile by spending longer at work is just that – extra, and not discretionary. It definitely doesn’t mean increased presenteeism. That’s not going to do anyone any favours.

Should employers be encouraging their people to work longer and harder, for the sheer love of the job? It’s hard to say. But piling on guilt or cracking the whip to enhance staff performance is very last century – don’t do it.

Sure, no one wants an employee to be sitting there doing the bare minimum. But stress and burnout are no good to anybody either. Do you really want to foster an ‘always-on’ workplace culture that drives employees into the ground?

France recently brought in laws to ensure employees have a right to disconnect from the use of digital tools to protect employees’ work-life balance. No matter what your view, it’s a bold move with business motivations behind it.

The decision was inspired by the idea that answering countless emails is making employees less productive, putting staff off doing any actual real work. Email has a lot to answer for.

While it might look good on the surface, sending off a few emails of an evening in front of Netflix doesn’t equate with discretionary effort. It’s about as meaningless as a turkey the day after Christmas. It might make the employee feel better, but it can’t truly be equated with ‘going the extra mile’. And there-in lies the problem.


Back to stress then, which is causing a major headache for employers as the century marches on. It’s true that companies with highly engaged staff find employees taking an average of seven absence days a year, as opposed to 14 days per employee in those companies with low engagement.

Now there’s also a worry that British workers are too scared to take days off sick as their workload won’t allow for it. Yet it’s a false economy to think that presenteeism matters above employee wellbeing.

If you’re sick, you won’t be doing anyone any favours by turning up at work. It’s simply counter-productive. This is not ‘going the extra mile.’ It’s frustrating as all it means is, everyone’s got the lurgy.

Discretionary effort isn’t all about longer, harder, better, so don’t be fooled into putting all your management eggs into that basket. Like the magic money tree, it’s an intangible concept that’s hard to measure effectively.


It’s best to concentrate management efforts on the aspects you can influence and control. To truly focus on improving performance, employees need to know their work really makes a difference. A sense of accomplishment is vital to instil to create meaningful people engagement.

Heather Bussing, HR Examiner, says, “Show employees how their work matters to the organisation, to others, to the world. Give people the resources to do great work and the authority and autonomy to do that work.”

As Sodexo’s ‘Move, Mould, Motivate’ study reveals, beyond safety and belonging, humans seek esteem (confidence, achievement and respect) and self-actualisation (creativity, problem solving and spontaneity). Give employees the tools along with the leadership to solve these issues and you begin to motivate people in ways that have far reaching qualities than, say, a pay rise might.

Sodexo’s study also found that more than a quarter (26%) of all employees don’t feel they are making a meaningful contribution to the success of their organisation.

Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics, Dan Ariely, says, “Individuals crave work that lets them leave a unique fingerprint on the business. ”Let them get their hands dirty and they’ll thank you for it – especially if you recognise and reward that effort later on.

By empowering the employee, the organisation can begin to see tangible benefits of employee engagement. Start there and the rest will follow.

Click Here To Get Your Free Ultimate Guide To Staff Incentive Programmes


Yes, meaning is an essential part of creating an engaging employee experience. In a 2016 report, Deloitte also found there are four other main elements for managers to focus their attentions on:

Growth Opportunity

Set specific goals and tasks and give feedback to boost performance and engagement in a measurable way. Give recognition where it’s due: tell people they matter and say thank you, directly and in person. Staff incentives and rewards can help you show your employees what matters to the business and can work wonders towards boosting workplace engagement.

Create a positive work environment

Show employees you’re invested in them, and they’ll invest in you. Offer the ability to choose when and how they work, think about the design of your workspace and consider staff health and safety programs. Create a collaborative working environment and you’ll build trust amongst staff – just be sure to be consistent to maintain management credibility.

Build trust in leadership

We’re back to emotions again, but if your leaders show empathy and dynamism, your staff will be inspired to perform better. Key to this is honesty and transparency – always make sure you lead by example and model the kind of behaviour change you want to instil within every employee.  

In the end, you can’t make people work harder for you. It might sound profitable but don’t be fooled. Discretionary effort is just that – flexible, optional and entirely down the individual. It’s employee engagement that drives this behaviour, really getting results and they’re not the same thing.

As Heather Bussing says, “Engagement should never be about manipulating people into doing more. It’s the outcome of creating a caring and human, friendly workplace.”

So, put the individual centre stage.

Bring the human touch to your approach and you’ll make an impact that will affect all your people and your organisation, for the better. Then you’ll see where the extra miles really take you.

Click Here To Get Your Free Ultimate Guide To Staff Incentive Programmes