Competency Development and Corporate Health Management: Less Stress for Greater Productivity!

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Competency Development and Corporate Stress Management: Less Stress for Greater Productivity Levels!

The word "stress" has entered common language within companies, schools and Universities, as well as in associations and at home. Literature on this topic abounds. Stress management courses are offered in plenty, along with medical check-ups. However, the level of stress keeps rising and leads to a drop in performance with the huge costs it implies.

By Liliane Held-Khawam, author of the book "Management of Processes by Coaching (MPC): Learning to Cope With Complexity in a Globalized Economy"

As such, a minimum amount of stress is highly desirable – and even vital – in order to mobilize the organism so that it may confront aggressions. It also acts as a stimulant that allows individuals to face challenges in order to reach their goals. The stress level, however, becomes an issue in two cases:

  1. When it is too low: the stimuli are insufficient and translate into a lack of combativeness and a state of apathy.
  2. When it is too high: the intensity of the aggression is more than the organism can take.

Thus, we may speak of a "stress threshold" that expresses the ideal level of stress at which the person’s potential is stimulated to a maximal extent. In this article, however, we will focus on situations in which individuals are confronted to an excess of aggressions. These aggressions – or stress factors – may be classified into three categories:

  1. Chemical stress factors: smoking, food, alcohol, pollution…
  2. Physical stress factors: accidents, noise, overwork (excessive physical strain)…
  3. Psychical stress factors: divorce, sense of injustice, insecurity, financial strain…

The consequences of this excess of stress will manifest themselves through:

  • A modification of one’s lifestyle: excessive consumption of tobacco, alcohol, drugs; irregular and unbalanced meals, etc.
  • The appearance of a disease or disorders: troubles of all types (back pains, headaches, etc.), insomnia, anguish, depression…
  • A loss of motivation at work
  • Dissatisfaction that will lead to highter turnovers
  • Signs of professional incompetence: irritability, rigidity, authoritarianism, lack of availability for others, etc.

All of which will result in a drop in work efficiency and productivity...

When excessive stress affects a significant part of the staff, the human potential of the whole company can decline. This is important as the company’s human potential has a direct impact on its productivity and profitability.

The main corporate stress factors in the 1990s

The situation is getting more and more critical for companies, as:

  • The pace of technological change increases
  • Economic markets are going global
  • Product life-expectancies are getting ever shorter
  • The reliance on information technology (and thus on communication systems) is growing
  • Work techniques and training-related knowledge are more and more short-lived
  • The monitoring of professional performance is getting tighter
  • The intensity of teamwork is increasing
  • The traditional authority and leadership patterns are being challenged

What can be done within the company?

Companies thus cannot act on the aforementioned external factors. However, they can exercise control over how jobs are attributed and how they manage their human potential. As we know, each individual contributes the following elements to the company:

  1. Their knowledge and technical know-how: such skills are easy to identify and develop.
  2. Their personality-related (or ‘behavioral’) skills: here we find organizational and management skills, as well as human relationships-, action- and reflection-related abilities. Every person will display both strengths and weaknesses in each of these dimensions. The limitations will be more difficult to detect at first sight, yet different tools can help us to accurately draw this profile and identify the employee’s potential. In an organizational context, a systematic observation of their behavior can also provide a reliable assessment of an employee’s competence profile.

The combination of their strengths and weaknesses regarding their technical and personal potential is what makes each employee unique.

Now, how can this help to reduce employee stress?

The intensive use of the employees’ strengths and the respect of their limitations will result in the generation of a positive energy which will enable them to thrive in their workplace. This balance will indeed allow them to deploy their energy while conciliating their private and professional lives. This harmony will strengthen their well-being by neutralizing the stress factors they are exposed to, and even turning them into stimulants.

People who need to regularly resort to their weak points in order to reach their professional goals, will be put under pressure if they cannot develop a complementarity with their colleagues or team. Their stress level will rise. Moreover, if they only achieve average professional results and that the pressure keeps increasing, the situation will quite certainly deteriorate.

Please note that the weaknesses that we are talking about here do not correspond, most of the time, to technical skills, but rather to behavioral ones that are related to personality. In such cases, the high stress level is due to an excessive gap between the employee’s potential and the job requirements of the position they hold. Also note that, when this gap is moderate, it rather acts as a stimulant.


1. "Individualistic" employees, who only seldom work within a team, will likely be able to keep things under control. The tension will indeed probably dissipate when their work goes back to normal. When having to contribute to complementarity within a team, however, the very same people will be put under constant pressure and the situation may then spin out of control. There will indeed be a risk of breaking up with the team, given their low capacity for teamwork. In this situation, there is a high probability that neither the employees in question nor the teams they belong to will achieve their goals.

2. The best salesperson has been appointed as Head of Sales. But does this person who meets all of her position’s success criteria really display an adequate profile for this management job?

Indeed, if the success criteria of the Head of Sales position correspond to the weak points of our saleswoman, she is at risk of neglecting her management role and stick to her former activities. If she wishes to take on this management role, however, she will have to make an intensive use of skills for which she is facing strong limitations, thus resulting in a high level of stress and a sense of weariness. She will have to invest more energy into her work than she used to, while risking to be regarded as an incompetent boss by her team members, who may lose their motivation.

People who make an intensive use of their less developed skills will quite inevitably end up with a high stress level. If this situation persists, their colleagues will notice it and call it incompetence. In a context of low-intensity competition or in times of strong growth, such factors can go unnoticed for a long time. However, in an economic situation that is characterized by fast-paced change, open markets and fierce competition, things are quite different.

What methodology may be applied?

The stress factor that we have been studying here corresponds to an unconscious gap between the position’s success criteria and the potential of the job holder. This stress factor may be better dealt with if the company adopts a systematic approach in the conduct of recruitment, orientation and promotion processes. This implies:

  • Performing a thorough analysis of the job’s skills requirements and success criteria
  • Performing a systematic identification of the job holder’s potential, as well as the setting of clear and realistic professional goals
  • Performing a gap analysis between the job’s skills requirements or success criteria and the job holder’s strengths and weaknesses
  • Measuring the gap between the job’s skills requirements and the job holder’s competencies, with an identification of both underused strengths and development areas; this shall lead to an agreement between the company and the employee on whether or not this gap is acceptable or can be reduced after some time
  • Setting up a joint development plan (company-job holder) in order to develop the weaknesses that threaten to slow down the employee and represent a source of stress
  • In certain cases, it can prove judicious to build a team with people who know, accept and make the best of their complementarity, using the group’s strengths to compensate for any individual weaknesses

In order to succeed, this approach cannot be implemented by the HR Department alone. The latter will indeed have to provide assessment tools that will allow analyzing the gaps between jobs and their holders in terms of knowledge, behavior and co-worker complementarity. This approach will however also require the involvement of the job holders as well as of their direct superiors.


Knowing that we all have weaknesses, we need to detect them and seek to develop them while setting ourselves realistic goals and assuming adequate responsibilities. To do so, however, we will need both time and resources.

Today, the pressure and challenges that we are facing force us to make the best use of the human potential that is available within the company. Constant excessive stress will not only have a negative impact on the performance and health of many employees, but also on their personal branding. As a consequence, the performance and health of the whole company will also deteriorate.

Regarding the constraints of the environment as a given data, the proposed approach only tackles the issues the company can deal with on its own, namely: reducing the gap between employees and the requirements set by their position, their team and the organization. It consists in a dual approach that is aimed 1) at systematically developing the adequateness between employees and their jobs and 2) at inciting employees to take the management of their potential and career in their own hands.

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