Nurses Discuss the Importance of Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

Emotional intelligence in nursing

A lot of people are talking about emotional intelligence (EQ) these days. In a time where technology has made it possible for people to maintain relationships and go to school with little face-to-face interaction, many are starting to recognize high EQ as a valuable asset in the workforce.

In nursing, this topic is even more essential. Nurses spend the vast majority of their time interacting with patients, peers and other ancillary healthcare staff. All the intangible aspects of communication (body language, perception, facial expressions and tone of voice) make a huge impact on how nurse and patient interactions develop. Research indicates that nurses with high emotional intelligence are not only happier and more successful, but also create better patient outcomes and improved care quality.

With such powerful results on the line, both nurses and employers are on the hunt for a better understanding of emotional intelligence in the workplace. How does EQ change the way nurses do their jobs? How could high EQ lead to better healing for patients in a healthcare facility? Can nurses improve their emotional intelligence? We asked nurses who understand EQ to share their insights into these and other questions.

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What is emotional intelligence, anyway?

“The book definition is an ability to understand and manage emotions—both yours and the people you are relating with,” says Stephanie Sargent, RN and VP of product development and quality at SE Healthcare. “It’s a behavioral competency.”

“People with high emotional intelligence tend to excel in verbal and social intelligences and are more open and approachable,” says Rebecca Lee, RN and founder of Remedies for Me. Sargent compares it to reading comprehension. “Everyone has a different level. You can apply the same concept to EQ. People with the highest levels can think objectively under pressure.”

A thought experiment can help you understand the impact emotional intelligence has. Sargent suggests thinking back to an emotionally charged situation you experienced recently. “How did you react when it was happening?” Sargent asks. “If you were an objective bystander, how would you have read that situation? How would an objective bystander have reacted?”

The difference between the two readings of the situation can indicate where you are in your grasp of your own emotional intelligence.

Why do nurses need emotional intelligence?

“The nursing profession is an extremely interactive one,” Sargent says. “You work with so many different people, and the way you interact with them can impact their posture toward you. Those with high EQ have an easier time and a more successful career.”

Emotional intelligence is extremely important in the nursing field because you work with patients all day long, Lee explains. “Patient care can cause stress, sadness, danger, exhaustion and joy, all at the same time.”

Specifically, Lee says emotional intelligence can help nurses to build better rapport with patients, peers and management, which can in turn create fewer barriers to quality care. “Emotional intelligence will allow you to interpret when a patient is angry, in pain, happy or sad,” Lee says. “Understanding their emotions will help you in your approach. If they are in pain, you will not take them lashing out at you personally. If a patient is sad, then they may need time alone or may not want to talk to you.”

Lee points out that EQ can also help nurses create a better work-life balance, enabling them to identify and deal with emotions from the job. “It can also help you be more self-aware and accept constructive criticism in order to better yourself as a professional,” Lee says. “Nurses with emotional intelligence resolve conflicts more easily with creativity, cooperation and by staying calm under stress.

A push toward more emotional intelligence in nursing

When nursing began as a profession, soft skills (some of which involve EQ) were a major chunk of the job. Sargent says that has really shifted in recent years. “Nurses do so much more now than they used to, so programs focus on making sure their graduates are technically proficient. This means that many nurses don’t have training in the emotional intelligence skills.”

“Lots of programs and hospitals are trying to bring that back,” Sargent says. “There are all these excellence programs where they teach nurses which words to use and how to position themselves.” As an example, Sargent says a nurse might say, “Alright Mr. Smith, I’m leaving now. Is there anything else you need? I have the time.”

“You don’t have the time,” Sargent adds with a laugh, “But saying that puts your patients at ease so they will speak up if they need something.”

It can also appear in more subtle ways. Sargent says she gets down to the patient’s eye-level when explaining something. “It changes the power dynamic, you’re not towering over them or about to walk out the door. It makes them more comfortable.”

As more hospitals and healthcare systems move to patient-centered care, emotional intelligence is becoming a hiring and training priority for employers. Sargent says the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) is a huge motivator for healthcare providers. Based on the survey results, hospitals can receive more or less funding from insurance—and many employers offer incentives to employees who are highly reviewed.

“One of the questions on the HCAHPS is, ‘How often did the nurses treat you with courtesy and respect?’” Sargent says. “It’s a big accomplishment when a nursing unit really knocks it out of the park. They might be celebrated by the hospital. It’s a measurable mark of a job well done.”

Can you improve your emotional intelligence?

“Definitely,” Sargent says. “There is science out there that EQ can be learned. It starts with understanding where you are on that continuum.” Sargent has noticed highly analytical personality types, for example, who sometimes need extra practice interacting with patients. “They are really good at the technical work. Maybe they never make an error or they have IV inserts down to a science.” While they can be excellent nurses, if they put more work into their EQ, then they will have more success with their patients.

“There are loads of assessments out there,” Sargent says. “You can learn a lot if you start reading up on the subject.” Of course, for many nurses, this learning happens on the go. Sargent does a personal debrief, thinking over what went well and what didn’t go well. Ask yourself, “Did I handle that as well as I could have?”

“The best nurses I’ve known stayed cool as a cucumber in the worst of circumstances,” Sargent says. “They don’t get frantic, and they engineer the best possible outcomes out of the worst circumstances.”

Lee says having a mentor for your nursing career can help you improve your EQ. “With their years of experience, they can guide and teach you methods for how to deal with difficult situations or patients. They can also give you constructive criticism and be honest with you.” Lee says when it’s someone you trust, you can truly reflect and incorporate what you learn into your nursing practice.

Reading as much as you can into psychology can help as well. Sargent recommends Shankar Vedantam’s work for NPR as a way to get thinking about new findings in the social sciences—which often intersect with emotional intelligence.

More than EQ

For nurses, emotional intelligence in the workplace is about a whole lot more than being likable and landing promotions—it’s about saving lives. Paying attention to your EQ can help patients trust you and, according to Sargent, trust helps them adhere to their plan of care. When patients feel comfortable to talk to you and take your direction, it can make all the difference in their health.

Of course EQ is only one of the vital qualities nurses need to truly rock the job. For a more comprehensive look at the components that make up an excellent healthcare professional, check out our article, “What Makes a Good Nurse? Experts Reveal What It Takes.”

About the author

Brianna Flavin

Brianna is a senior content manager who writes student-focused articles for Rasmussen University. She holds an MFA in poetry and worked as an English Professor before diving into the world of online content. 

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