Well being and discretionary effort…


Wellbeing and discretionary effort, so what’s that all about then? A lot of folk look at wellbeing as a narrative around which leaders can jump on board the latest management fad. However, I would suggest if organisations aren’t doing wellbeing, the likelihood of discretionary contributions from the workforce is going to be limited, if existent at all.

Discretionary effort, or extra-role effort as it is sometimes called over the pond, is what work we get from employees that they don’t necessarily HAVE to give. Or, what amount of work our people do when nobody is looking! So, what does that look like?

I often ask how much employees have to do before they get into trouble? What amount to avoid being disciplined or sacked? In terms of percentage, this is usually about 30%. So, you only have to work at about 30% to avoid being sacked, or disciplined; seems about right. Taking this further, you could argue that we can’t work at 100% all of the time, because that’s not very good for our wellbeing! And, will lead, over time, to burnout. So, we could reasonably suggest that a work rate of around 80% is sustainable?

The mathematicians amongst you will be quickly establishing that this leaves a 50% gap of work, which I am suggesting here, is discretionary.

Now, a couple of points around the working environment in the cops at this present time. It is hard, really hard at the moment. Usually framed as ‘unprecedented!’ There is no sign of it easing in the near future either, so what to do?

When we ask our people what they find stressful in the workplace, the answers are very often not framed around external phenomena, such as austerity, exposure to violence, and the demands from the public. They are mostly internal stressors, the top one being the relationship with the line manager, “I love working for this organisation, but it doesn’t love me!” This sort of comment leads me to think that a lot of what we experience as stress is self-created by us within our own organisation, and may be if we thought things through a little better we wouldn’t make things so bad for our people? And, if we make things better for our people, or at least try as hard as we can to do so; I would suggest that we would actually see more discretionary effort? This working to make things better for our people bit is what I would describe as wellbeing.

When you start to describe workplace wellbeing people are drawn to images of beanbags and tofu bars, I would suggest the biggest impact is gained from simply being a decent fellow human being. In the cops one would at least hope that this should come quite naturally!

Are our line managers doing all they can to ease the external pressures being brought to bear? Are our bosses encouraging us and supporting us?

I wrote a piece for the CMI a few years ago describing the benefits of transformational leadership. Although fascinating, it is not easy to digest, the language is all very complicated and can be confusing if you are not submerged in it all the time. I had a go at simplifying what it was actually suggesting were good management traits. I boiled these down to being caring, having credibility, creating challenging work and being committed. This seemed to make perfect sense, to me anyway. Looking at how we then frame these, in terms of wellbeing is pretty obvious. All of these traits, and not a metric in sight I hasten to add, are all good for our wellbeing. Feeling supported at work, led by someone who knows what they are doing, is fully committed to looking after us as well as the public and can deal with the challenges we face is all fairly good. In my force we distilled this down to knowing yourself, knowing your staff and knowing your stuff! I know many may see this as an over-simplification, but I would suggest it is the basis for all that follows?

It is commonly held that work is good for us; it brings meaning and purpose to our lives. However, poorly organised work and poor leadership can make this a nightmare, and eventually even the most resilient of our folk will crack and say they’ve had enough.

For me, creating the right environment is the key to our people enjoying, yes enjoying, their working life. And, if people enjoy it, draw meaning and purpose from it, and are well led, I would suggest we should realise a good chunk of the 50% spare of discretionary effort floating around in our workforce?