When healthcare meets emotional intelligence

The concept of ‘emotional intelligence’ is popular in the corporate world, although slow to infiltrate elsewhere. At La Trobe, however, Dr Leila Karimi, Professor Sandra Leggat and Professor Tim Bartram have developed emotional intelligence training for healthcare employees. Their research is easing the emotional toll that can arise from helping and caring for others.

The burden of emotional labour

What is ‘emotional intelligence’? In a nutshell, it’s your ability to understand and manage your emotions in the workplace, while recognising and understanding emotional triggers in others. That’s important in an era of increased work hours, greater workplace responsibility and associated stress levels.

People with highly developed emotional intelligence are said to be in a better position to further their careers. They’re well equipped to realise their potential, improve their health and become the type of colleague people want to work with.

In the healthcare industry, the emotional stakes can be high. One of the main difficulties is ‘emotional labour’. You perform such labour when work requires you to feel and display emotional responses in accordance with the emotions of others, emotions that may contrast with your own feelings.

Emotional labour is a daily expectation of nurses, personal carers, people working in aged-care recreational services, and employees of many other health professions.

Yet healthcare professionals don’t receive proper training to deal with this core aspect of the work.

That’s where Dr Karimi and Professors Leggat and Bartram come in.

Easing the emotional tolls

Before joining La Trobe, Dr Karimi was a researcher for the Royal District Nursing Service, where she noticed some managed their workload and emotional labour better than others.

According to Dr Karimi, some nurses felt ‘bullied’ – by patients, families and GPs.

She discovered that some nurses felt ‘bullied’ – by patients, families and GPs. However, those with high emotional intelligence were better able to manage their reactions.

Building on that research, the La Trobe team designed a training program to help with the most challenging elements of healthcare – like interacting with and caring for ageing and dying people.

‘Those challenges are a normal part of life, but nobody really wants to talk about them,’ Professor Leggat says.

The team wants to change the way health staff are trained at Australian universities, hospitals and aged-care facilities.

Results from their pilot program show they’re on the right track.

The study demonstrates that emotional intelligence training can increase the effectiveness of teamwork, improve patient interaction and raise the quality of care.

Teaching emotional intelligence

For the team, heightened emotional intelligence can lighten the load of emotional labour. It does this by helping healthcare workers recognise and manage the emotions they encounter while performing their roles.

These skills can be taught, but they’ve never been recognised as an integral aspect of preparing people for these roles.

Professor Leggat says that needs to change.

‘Nursing has one of the highest stress levels as an occupation, according to government documents,’ she says.

The pilot program consisted of a six-month emotional intelligence training course for a variety of aged-care staff. Participants undertook monthly training and homework and produced feedback at each session. There was also a control group, which received no training.

The training gave people permission to think about their emotions, an outcome the participants valued highly.

According to Professor Leggat, ‘They reported positive personal changes in their work and also in their personal life, which was unexpected. Team work skills improved, the quality of care increased, and they were better able to manage the demands of the job. It was thrilling to see real-life differences in their work.’

Increasing resilience

While emotional intelligence training is valued in the corporate world, the La Trobe program was the first of its kind specifically designed for aged-care workers.

Now, the team is looking to apply that training to other health industries. The next focus is community nursing.

Ultimately, they want to see emotional intelligence training in university curriculums. When that happens, healthcare students won’t simply be learning about the clinical aspects of their careers, but also the human and emotional elements.

Professor Leggat says you can’t turn emotional labour off, but you can equip yourself with the skills to manage it, protecting yourself and others.

‘It’s so important for health professionals to have the resilience to protect themselves from the emotional pressures of the job,’ Professor Leggat says. ‘If emotional labour is part of the role, you can’t turn it off, but you can equip yourself with the skills to manage it and to protect yourself and others.’

As Australia prepares for the challenges of an ageing population, we need better tools to support this growing demographic.

By treating emotional intelligence as a needed aspect of the healthcare industry, the work of Dr Karimi, Professor Leggat and Professor Bartram has the potential to improve the lives of carers, patients and the communities they live in.

At La Trobe, Dr Leila Karimi is Senior Lecturer in the College of Science, Health and Engineering; Professor Sandra Leggat is Professor of Health Services Management in the School of Psychology and Public Health; and Professor Timothy Bartram is Director of Research in the La Trobe Business School.

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