Equipping personal care workers, nurses and other frontline aged care workers to better manage their emotions leads to improved general wellbeing, reduced stress levels and better quality of care for residents.

That’s according to the findings of a new Australian study that piloted the implementation of emotional intelligence training that was specifically developed for use on residential aged care staff.

Residential aged care was often listed as among the most stressful work environments in occupational surveys, yet training for staff rarely provided them with the skills to deal with the “emotional burden”, said study co-author Dr Leila Karimi, senior lecturer at the School of Psychology and Public Health, La Trobe University.

Dr Karimi, who was formerly a researcher at aged care provider RDNS, said that she noticed some nurses coped with the emotional demands of the job better than others.

“They seemed to put on a happy face in spite of the emotional labour, even if they were tired, frustrated or getting a hard time from residents or families. After investigating, I realised emotional intelligence was one of the skills that protected them against the emotional burden,” Dr Karimi told Australian Ageing Agenda.

She said emotional intelligence was the ability to recognise one’s emotions, as well as other people’s, to discriminate between different feelings, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour.

Along with her colleagues Sandra Leggat and Tim Bartram, and working with emotional intelligence trainer Taruni Falconer, Dr Karimi piloted the use of a six-month emotional intelligence training program with aged care workers at two facilities.

Some 60 participants, including nurses, care workers, lifestyle staff, food and catering staff and facility managers, took part in the study. One half of the group received the training while the other was assigned to a control.

The staff who undertook the training showed significant improvement in their general wellbeing, reduced levels of stress and, most importantly, quality of patient care improved significantly, said Dr Karimi.

“There was a significant improvement in the level of emotional intelligence, so we believe it’s a trainable skill,” she said.

Participants who completed the training said it not only had an effect on how they approached the work environment but also on their personal lives and happiness levels.

“After the training they felt positive personal changes, they felt they more connected with others, and they felt they learned really important tools and skills,” Dr Karimi said.

One participant said:

“This course was the best investment for my life. My family and friends noticed ‘positive changes’ in me.”

Another told the researchers:

“Before I used to bottle things up. This led to major stress and unhappiness. Now I break things down. The course made it easier to cope in difficult moments.”

Discussing the next stages of the research project, Dr Karimi said the team hoped to conduct another study with a larger sample in order to replicate the findings.

“Then we’re hoping to make some changes in the educational system because nurses and personal care workers receive lots of training about clinical aspects of care but they don’t receive any specific training on the emotional or communication aspects of the job, which I believe are equally important,” she said.

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4 Comments

  1. It seems common sense to train people with methods they can use to deal with stress when they are dealing with difficult situations at work on a daily basis. Why don’t all providers train their staff in this way?

  2. Both the content and the learning approach in this Emotional Intelligence program were pioneering. We don’t learn EI skills in a one day training program. We learn incrementally, over many months as we practice, apply and reflect on the impact. This program included working with a partner-colleague at work so that learning was ongoing in small, sustainable steps within the work setting. The outcomes – enlivened staff, greater team cohesion, improved quality in patient care.

  3. Interesting… an EI program in different care spaces would be valuable. I’m not sure that motivations such as compassion for others or helping older people are sufficient to cope at an emotional level. Look forward to reading more about EI work to support care work.

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