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Call to measure emotional intelligence

Should nursing students be screened for emotional intelligence? The profession continues to debate the pros and cons. Flynn Murphy reports.

Nursing students need better training in self-awareness and interpersonal communication to prepare them for the demands of the job, and should be screened for emotional intelligence, a senior lecturer at Southern Cross University has said.

“The reason nursing is one of the most loved professions in the community is we have always been the ones who will spend time with the patient and engage,” said psychiatric nurse Dr John Hurley.

“But we’re not preparing nurses very well for that in the curriculum, because it’s increasingly crowded, and there are more demands being placed on curricula time,” said Hurley, who has recently co-authored a book on the subject.

He quoted a study that showed those with higher levels of emotional intelligence are more likely to complete their nursing training. “When you control for gender, and age, and socioeconomic status, the thing that actually is the most reliable predictor for nurses finishing their nursing training is actually emotional intelligence. Because it’s about their ability to cope,” he told Nursing Review.

He said the increasing demands of the nursing profession meant less opportunity for nurses to perform vital interpersonal work. “Dissatisfied patients can often be understood through the lens of emotional intelligence in the sense that they aren’t perceiving compassion.”

“There’s a lot of emotional labour in nursing, and nurses can get drained. We all have a level of self-awareness and a level of empathy, but unless we pay attention to that and develop that it can very easily slip away,” said Hurley.

“You might be a new graduate nurse, for example, feeling very anxious and nervous about your capabilities or about a critical event. But you need to be able to identity what your emotional state is – to access that emotion, and put it to one side, and use that to do your job better. That would be a good example of someone who is emotionally intelligent.”

But Professor Patrick Crookes, the head of the Council of Deans of Nursing and Midwifery, said he hasn’t seen any evidence that we have systems to measure intelligence “in a way that makes sense.”

“I think there’s still work to be done on refining what exactly emotional intelligence is, which is affected by the way it’s measured … I’m not sure that emotional intelligence is something that is amenable to a training package.”

“But it’s a very important concept for all health professionals, not just nurses, to have a combination of all sorts of intelligences. And if you look at our nurses, I would suggest that most nursing courses have a component about the emotional elements of nursing, and interpersonal communication skills.”

Crookes said his program at the University of Wollongong is one such example. He said clinical simulations had made real inroads in the area, for instance through the use of actors playing the role of patients.

“I’d be disappointed to know of courses that don’t seek to prepare students for the emotional realities of the role. I’d argue that nursing and midwifery of all the professions probably does it the most.”

Hurley said nurses should be interviewed individually or in groups when enrolling in a nursing course. “In the [UK] they might have an interview and say ‘well you’ve never seen a sick person before, why don’t you go and spend a weekend at a nursing home, and then come back’. There’s a lot to be said for that.”

Crookes said that while he recognised the merits of this, such a proposal would be difficult to support for practical reasons, given the thousands of people that enter nursing each year.

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