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  • The value of Emotional Intelligence in a nursing career

    Author: Sharon Smith

In the United Kingdom, the 2013 Francis report ruled that poor care was endemic in the region of Mid Staffordshire, and suggested the recruitment of student nurses should be based on those possessing “values, attitudes and behaviours appropriate for the profession”. As a result, Health Education England developed a values-based student recruitment program, and Scotland researched recruitment approaches too.

If you can understand why someone might feel a certain way, then you are on your way to emotional intelligence (EI). There are a number of tests available for measuring EI – so should we be using these as part of the application process?

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Emotional Intelligence (EI) is generally defined as the ability to monitor and evaluate emotions in one’s self and others and to act appropriately in response. Some psychology and management thinkers use terms like social intelligence or people skills and describe how some people can be naturally emotionally intelligent, yet all have the ability to learn it. Much of the academic literature on the topic is in consensus that people can improve their EI capability.

Edinburgh Napier University and the University of West Scotland studied first year nursing students, measuring their EI scores on commencement of their studies and taking into account their previous care experience. As the students progressed through their program, this score and their performance were recorded again and compared to determine if the high-scoring EI students were at an advantage.

They were not.


“Students’ emotional-intelligence scores appeared not to make any difference to their performance on the course, yet changes in their scores over their first year made a difference as to whether they continued or not,” said lead researcher Professor Austyn Snowden.

“It is widely known that the empathy of student medics and nurses drops when they are exposed to patients. It seems that their emotional intelligence does too.”

“As for previous caring experience, more than half of our group had some sort of relevant experience prior to becoming a student nurse. Surprisingly, perhaps, we found that those who had past experience tended to perform more poorly in the course in their first year.”

“The true nature of emotional intelligence matters greatly in our context. If it is a trait, it could be important for recruitment purposes. If it more like an ability, it could be developed and nurtured through nurse education.”

In managing the hardships
With increasing nursing turnover being linked to decreased job satisfaction due to physical demands, job stress and the failure to nurture nurses, the four guiding principles of emotional intelligence can be used to manage a variety of situations.
By identifying the emotions in ourselves and others, it can help us better identify the situation. Is your NUM constantly on your back, asking you to do completely unreasonable things – and never willing to negotiate? Maybe she needs a little compassion thrown her way. She might be struggling with the pressure of leadership, or with the adolescent anxieties of needing to be perfect.

What is your gut telling you? Some psychologists believe in the intuition, or the ability to use your emotions as a way to reason. If you are constantly responding to a particular situation, this might be telling you something about how you feel about the facts or the people involved.

Inherent or learned, being able to understand our emotions is one of those big steps in life. As nurses take on the emotional toll of their patients’ suffering, some find it hard to switch off, and combined with the elevated cortisol levels from a high-stress job are not able to adequately regulate their emotional response. The outcome is depression, anxiety, and compassion fatigue when dealing with patients. Emotions change, overlap and sometimes trap us for long periods of time, when we can get stuck in phases of professional or personal burnout. Everyone should learn how to understand their emotions.

It can be difficult to admit that as a caring professional, you have run out empathy for those in your charge. But the final step to master in becoming emotionally intelligence is the ability to manage emotions. Rather than denying or ignoring emotions you might be having, such as anger with a patient who won’t take their medications as directed, it means finding ways to deal with that emotion – perhaps getting a teammate who has a repour with that patient to find out why he won’t take his meds.

Relationships matter in the caring professions. The evidence grows with each passing day that the relationship we have with ourselves affects how we relate to each other – and this needs to be integrated into professional development.


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Sharon Smith

Sharon Smith writes freelance articles as a medical, science and technology specialist. She is researching health journalism at Griffith University and lives mostly on Twitter @smsmithwriter (and would love to hear from you).