Emotional intelligence (“EI”) is widely recognized as vital to success across a wide range of industries, to the point that many companies have incorporated it into their hiring, training, and promotion processes. In an industry like healthcare, there are high expectations of the workforce to be exceptionally EI-adept, especially when caring for patients and their loved ones. Regardless of one’s profession, EI is a powerful tool for understanding and managing emotions in a positive way.
The concept of Emotional Intelligence has been rapidly gaining popularity since the term was first coined in 1985 by Wayne Payne’s doctoral dissertation, “A Study of Emotion: Developing Emotional Intelligence; Self-Integration; Relating to Fear, Pain and Desire”. Put simply, EI refers to an individual’s ability to accurately identify emotions and manage them, both in themselves and others. For healthcare professionals, selflessness is a trademark characteristic, and empathy and compassion are critical components of quality patient care. However, the tendency of the healthcare industry to focus exclusively on patient-centered care has led to an over-emphasis of the interpersonal aspects of EI at the cost of the intrapersonal. Consequently, many caregivers suffer emotional self-neglect as they shove their personal needs aside in their dedication to the needs of others.
How is it that those who care for us leave themselves so neglected? Perhaps it is counter to the nature of the caregivers themselves, or perhaps it is a result of the pressure and expectations prevalent in the healthcare culture to sacrifice self in service of others. Regardless, studies show that higher EI has positive impacts on patient trust and satisfaction of care. It also has been linked to less burnout and increased job satisfaction among providers.
Often abbreviated as EI, emotional intelligence is a term that describes the ability to accurately recognize and manage one’s emotions as well as those around them. The closely related term “emotional intelligence quotient,” or EQ, is the measure of EI, though they are often used interchangeably. The lack of a validated psychometric scale for EI is part of the debate as to whether it is a viable construct or if it is simply a way to describe interpersonal skills. Despite the ongoing discussion, the concepts EI explores are valuable tools for understanding and discussing the nebulous nature of emotional landscapes.
EI is divided into two concentrations: personal and social. These concentrations are segmented further into awareness and management skills.
Self-awareness is all about knowing yourself and the impact you have on others. Acknowledging and naming what emotions you’re feeling, your triggers, strengths, and weaknesses can be difficult; it takes humility to form a realistic self-image but taking a hard look inward can be incredibly illuminating. Integrating self-assessment into a meditation practice is a great way to practice self-awareness, but when time is scarce, dedicating a few moments to tune in to our emotions is a good place to start. It can help to schedule these moments, but in a chaotic environment, it may be more practical to identify a few frequently performed actions to serve as checkpoint opportunities throughout the day. Having a cup of coffee, exiting a patient’s room, washing hands, or even settling into the car before driving to and from work — these are all opportunities to pause and check in, however briefly.
As self-awareness develops, the power of self-management comes into play. As you become more familiar with what makes you tick, you can in effect “hack” your emotional responses to propel you in your daily activities and achieving long-term goals. Knowing how you respond to certain stimuli before they arise enables you to react thoughtfully and control your impulses. “Knowing your why” is a phrase that serves to illustrate this concept well — almost any difficulty can be easier to overcome when given the proper perspective. Case in point, many caregivers endure incredibly stressful and hectic shifts with grueling hours and emotionally taxing cases, all in the name of serving those in need. Paradoxically, doing less is harder for many in healthcare, even though burnout rates are alarmingly high. To combat this, it may help to reframe rest as a necessary component of patient care and essential to extending an impactful career. You cannot pour from an empty cup, after all.
To be socially aware is to be able to recognize and empathize with the emotions of others. High EI in this sense corresponds to the ability to pick up on social cues and read group dynamics, which naturally boosts confidence in social settings. In an increasingly collaborative healthcare system, being able to forge strong relationships on the floor and interdepartmentally begins with being attentive to the emotional state of coworkers. Likewise, strong, trusting relationships with patients are built on this foundation of compassion and empathy as we all have an innate desire to be seen and understood.
Social management is using social awareness to form successful relationships with others. Understanding and patience are hallmark characteristics of socially adept individuals, especially well-respected leaders. Clear communication, good team dynamics, and conflict mitigation are all forms of social management in action. During turbulent times, it helps to pause before reacting to give yourself the space to reflect and respond thoughtfully. While pausing may not always be an option and may simply be beyond your capacity in the moment, if there is a blunder, apologies go a long way to repair misunderstandings and restore trust and respect. Assuming that everyone is doing the best they can under trying circumstances such as we’re seeing today can help solidify relationships and encourage a supportive work environment.
Keeping an open mind to others’ ideas and being receptive to critical feedback has the dual benefit of encouraging communication while also empowering the team. When people feel that their message is heard and considered, even if a different direction is ultimately agreed upon, it increases their sense of value and eagerness to continue to contribute.
Internal boundaries are just as important as external boundaries. We can be our own worst enemy, subjecting ourselves to negative self-talk or indulging in destructive behaviors. Recognizing and working to mitigate these patterns can be especially difficult, but is necessary for good mental health. Likewise, protecting against overreach from others, be it work requests during off hours or undue emotional drama, is necessary to preserving mental health. Remember, you set your own boundaries, so they can change as your needs evolve.
Be a cheerleader
Recognizing the efforts and successes of others helps you learn to focus on their positive contributions and encourages openness in return. A little competition can be motivating, but too much and a team can quickly fall into dysfunction. Celebrating everyone’s victories as wins for the team allows for more collaborative effort and fosters a more tight-knit, supportive unit.
For healthcare professionals, responding to and addressing the emotional needs of others is familiar territory. Recognizing fear in a patient’s face and knowing how to reassure them. Sitting with a family and providing comfort in the face of uncertainty. Rejoicing the wins, big or small, and deftly nurturing even the smallest sparks of hope are all in the caregiver’s domain. It’s the other side of EI that focuses on the self that is difficult. In the highly empathetic, concern for others often overshadows personal care, and the thought of taking a break to recharge often doesn’t even occur or is dismissed as an unnecessary indulgence. Contrary to this feeling, however, taking breaks does in fact lead to better patient outcomes. As documented by Vanessa Patricelli (RN), when adequate staffing is provided so that nurses can actually take their breaks and sit for uninterrupted meals, fewer medication errors and patient falls occur when compared to the prevailing “buddy system” which had been in place prior to the additional staff support. Buddy systems were intended to provide assurance that responsibilities were covered while a caregiver stepped out, but staff was spread too thin for comfort and resulted in skipped breaks and meals. After the staffing increases were implemented and as patient experience improved, the hospital enjoyed the added bonuses of increased retention and job satisfaction scores.
Healthcare professionals are overwhelmingly more inclined to endure hardship than take a break and step away from the coworkers and patients who depend on them. When staff are allocated the resources and support necessary to comfortably detach and recharge, performance improves. Caregivers who are able to address their emotional needs are able to deliver a more effective, reliable performance at critical moments. This translates in turn to a healthier workforce with more bandwidth to meet the demands of the day and care effectively for themselves, their teammates, and their patients.