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How Emotional Intelligence Can Help Health Care Workers

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How about some good news?  Something that can bring you more ease and calm, as well as stronger and healthier relationships with others? Emotional intelligence can help. Studies suggest it can both curb burnout and support wellness. Dan Goleman, PhD, and I recently collaborated for an article on this topic, “How Health Care Workers Can Help Themselves,” that contains many practical tips specifically tailored for stressed health care workers in the coronavirus era. Dan has been researching this topic for 25 years and is the author of many books on emotional intelligence including “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ” and “Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is made up of four quadrants: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. I’ll talk about each, with a focus on a few simple things that can help stressed physicians and health care workers right now.

Self-awareness is our attunement to our emotions and their impact on others. It can be influenced by reflective practices such as journaling and mindfulness. Micro-practices such as doing a personal well-being check in during hand sanitizing can be a great way to build the habit of self-care. As you’re working in the gel, ask yourself, “Am I thirsty, hungry, or fatigued? Am I carrying some emotional baggage I don’t need to carry? Can I be more present, right here, right now? How am I talking to myself: with kindness and care, or in a less helpful way?”

Self-management is the ability to navigate our emotions, especially those commonly found to be difficult, such as anger and frustration. Skills in self-calming can help. What tells me I’m “triggered?”  A certain feeling in my gut? My tone of voice, or lack of clarity?  And what are my go-to strategies for bringing more calm?  Diaphragmatic breathing, movement, and music can be helpful, as well as knowing that human physiology often takes at least 20 minutes to reset after an emotional trigger. We all get triggered, and likely even more now that today’s stress level has increased. Simple gratitude practices can also be very helpful. Knowing what you need to regain a calm and centered state is a key step.

Social awareness comprises what is commonly known as empathy. Physicians are typically strong in this quadrant but may have less experience bringing empathy to themselves or making space for self-care. We must remind ourselves, and our colleagues, that good self-care allows us to be there for others and can leverage the natural empathy of physicians in a more balanced way.

Relationship management is how we interact with and influence others, and how we manage the supportive or stressful bonds of our relationships. In this time of high anxiety and stress, bringing extra patience and a mindset that others are likely doing the best they can — “assuming the best” — can be very helpful. Also, going slow at key moments — moments of tension, thanks, or vulnerability — can bring more ease and connection for all. The idea of slowing down a bit more is simple; putting it into practice can be challenging. It’s a habit that can be built, breath by breath, day by day.

The simple four quadrant structure does not necessarily mean it’s easy to do. To start, pick just one quadrant to focus on. Buddy up with a mentor, trusted colleague, or coach for added support. Micro-practices, such as a deep breath (or three) when using hand sanitizer, are a great place to start. Once you find a few moments of calm, you’ll likely want more. And bring a big dose of self-empathy and self-compassion along the way. Such things are not drilled into our training, but they bring great benefits — both for you, and for the many lives you touch. There’s no doubt that we need system-level changes in the structure and culture of health care. Change at such a level is an all too slow process. Emotional intelligence can help along the way. You work so hard to bring wellness to your patients; that’s exactly what I want for you, too.

Image: Isaeva Anna / shutterstock

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