The idea that higher levels of emotional intelligence (EI) are beneficial in preventing occupational stress and burnout can be to some extent deduced from the theoretical models explaining them. According to the transactional model, a person experiences stress when the perceived demands of the environment are greater than their ability to cope with them (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). As shown in Figure 1, individuals differ in their stress response. The appraisal of the same situation will for some persons be threatening, whereas to others it will appear harmless. In other words, individuals can either think that it is possible to deal with the problem (prepare to take some action towards handling the situation), or have the feeling that one cannot cope with the situation that causes stress – feeling a sense of helplessness in relation to managing the situation.
Figure 1: The Stress appraisal and coping model (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).
Burnout and depression represent two major public health concerns affecting not only employed adults but also students (Tement et al., 2016). While depression tends to be context-free, burnout is a work-related mental health impairment comprising three dimensions: emotional exhaustion (state of reduced emotions), depersonalization (negative approach to people) and reduced personal accomplishment (low self-efficacy) (Awa et al., 2010). Most often it results from stress in asymmetrical professional relationships between a helper (being under stress) and the help recipient. This is usually the case with professionals like physicians, nurses, teachers or social workers, to name just the most common ones. Hence, most EI training programs have been designed to address the needs of these professionals.
The Swinburne Stress Management Program (SSMP) was designed to teach employees to manage occupational stress through the development of EI (Hansen et al., 2007). The program, although from its theoretical framework designed to meet the needs of a broader group of professionals, was mainly used with teachers (e.g., Veseley et al., 2014). In a three level classification of approaches to manage occupational stress, SSMP addresses the secondary level including activities designed to change an individual’s reaction to stressors . The program consists of three components: (i) conceptual information about the nature of stress, its relationship to the emotional intelligence construct and the value of developing emotional intelligence in the workplace; (ii) self-assessments as tools to build awareness of individual EI strengths and deficiencies; (iii) skills training to develop personal strategies to improve emotional intelligence and to manage work stressors (e.g., developing a more expansive emotional vocabulary to improve interpersonal communication; identifying and practicing skills underpinning active listening, practicing emotional reasoning skills; learning emotional management strategies, and rehearsing better ways to control strong emotions when experiencing stress).
The efficiency of the SSMP was first assessed on a sample of 79 primary and secondary school teachers. The results indicated that the program was successful in improving the participants’ EI, reducing their occupational stress and improving their psychological and physical well-being, which was maintained at a five-week follow-up interval (Hansen et al., 2007). In a more recent study by Veseley et al. (2014), a modified version of the SSMP was administered to pre-service teachers (n = 49) over a five-week period. The results indicated that the trained group had higher self-report scores on just one EI scale (WLEIS). WLEIS is a self-report EI measure with four ability dimensions based on the appraisal, understanding, expression, and management of emotion in the self and others.
The study by Patil et al. (2016) assessed the effect of EI training in physiotherapy interns to help them understand their patients better and enhance their self-awareness while patients' perceived change in care was examined. Included were 8 physiotherapy interns who were trained on EI via lectures, case vignettes and discussion. The training program encompassed 6 modules including (i) general information about EI, (ii) the relevance of EI in day to day life, hospital and doctor-patient settings, (iii) discussions with examples using EI in managing anger, fear, guilt and resentment with a focused awareness of self and relationship management; (iv) EI at the workplace with friends and colleagues, social skills training and relaxation techniques, (v) case examples and discussions on EI in physiotherapy settings; in career growth; in dealing with difficult patients, and in end of life care; (vi) revision of all modules; feedback and reflective writing. The analysis of scores on the retrospective questionnaire revealed a significant change in self-awareness and personal emotional attitudes in the interns. Furthermore, patients under the care of the trained group perceived a significant increase in therapist consultation and relational empathy.
The study by Biggart et al. (2016) evaluated the effect of EI training on stress and burnout in 209 child and family social workers in the UK. A 2-day EI training course was offered that included information on EI, the function of emotions, identifying and understanding them along with managing them and interpreting EI individual feedback profiles. Each participant received an EI profile and feedback from the MSCEIT. The study also employed an active control group. The results showed no statistically significant effects of EI training on psychological or physiological strain or on emotional exhaustion.
This brief review of EI training approaches has revealed several methodological shortcomings of the studies, such as small sample size, lack of a control group or the use of passive control groups. However, when a more conservative methodology was applied (e.g., Biggart et al., 2016), no training effects could be observed - a conclusion which is in line with the shortcomings in EI training already discussed in our previous blog on general characteristics of EI training approaches.
Awa, W. L., Plaumann, M., & Walter, U. (2010). Burnout prevention: A review of intervention programs. Patient Education and Counseling, 78(2), 184–190. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pec.2009.04.008
Biggart, L., Ward, E., Cook, L., Stride, C., Schofield, G., Corr, P., Fletcher,C., Bowler, J., Jordan, P and Baile, S. (2016). Emotional Intelligence and Burnout in Child and Family Social Work: Implications for policy and practice. Centre for Research on Children and Families, University of East Anglia.
Hansen, K., Gardner, L., & Stough, C. (2007). Improving occupational stress through emotional intelligence development. Organizations and People, 14, 70-75.
Lazarus, R.S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, Appraisal and Coping. New York: Springer Publishing Company.
Patil, V., Naik, R., & De Sousa, A. (2016). A Study of the Impact of Emotional Intelligence Training in Physiotherapy Interns a Pilot Study. International Journal of Physiotherapy, 3(2). https://doi.org/10.15621/ijphy/2016/v3i2/94874
Tement, S., Pahor, A., & Jaušovec, N. (2016). EEG alpha frequency correlates of burnout and depression: The role of gender. Biological Psychology, 114, 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2015.11.005
Vesely, A. K., Saklofske, D. H., & Nordstokke, D. W. (2014). EI training and pre-service teacher wellbeing. Personality and Individual Differences, 65, 81–85. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2014.01.052