In times of extreme change, like we’ve faced the last couple of months, negative emotions begin to multiply and intensify. Emotions like anxiety, fear, and frustration can even begin to feel baked into our everyday lives.
A recent survey of American workers during COVID-19 reported the following:
–70% of employees say that COVID-19 is the most stressful time ever in their working career
–88% of employees say they’re experiencing moderate stress or worse
–62% of stressed employees say they lose at least an hour of productivity per day
When stress and negative emotions begin to take over on a daily basis, burnout waits just around the corner. Burnout saps confidence, positivity, and energy. It kills productivity and creativity, and it’s been linked to serious, long-term emotional and physical health issues. According to a SHRM survey, burnout is also one of the top reasons people leave jobs.
The interesting thing about burnout is that even though all people experience stress and negative emotions, not everyone burns out in response. It’s possible to navigate high stakes, long hours, and looming disasters in a way that protects you from emotional capsizing.
Emotional Intelligence Skills Protect People From Burnout
In a study of Chief Medical Officers (CMOs), an exceptionally high-stress position, almost all of the CMOs rated their stress as “severe, very severe, or worst possible.” The researchers, who specialize in studying stress and burnout, noticed something unusual about the CMOs. Even though they experienced heavier levels of stress than most people, the majority still did not burn out. Instead, they had developed effective coping mechanisms through years of managing their excessive stress loads. Their coping mechanisms shared a common theme: emotional intelligence (EQ).
Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships. EQ is made up of four core skills, and each one plays a critical role in stress management:
Self-Awareness is your ability to accurately perceive your emotions and stay aware of them as they happen. The researchers found that the Chief Medical Officers were skilled at recognizing when they felt anxious or stressed. Once they recognized a negative emotion, they didn’t stop there. They traced the feeling back to its source (like a tight deadline or a specific conflict with a colleague). This allowed them to understand not only what they were feeling but also why they felt that way. Getting specific about your emotions is one of the best ways to overcome that vague and shallow circulation of negative thoughts we experience when stressed. Specificity gives you control over time and place for your reaction. It frees you up to separate your fears or anxieties from your actual work and actions. Without awareness of your emotions, you can’t manage them.
Self-Management is your ability to use awareness of your emotions to stay flexible and direct your behavior in a positive way. For the CMOs, self-management influenced how they dealt with their anxieties and stress as well as how they avoided impulsive decisions or destructive tendencies. Self-management can come in a number of forms. For many people, self-managing against stress works best when they return to the basics—things like exercise, sleep hygiene, connecting to close friends, eating healthy, or meditating. At peak self-management, the CMOs even leveraged their stress as a motivator to perform highly under pressure.
Social Awareness is your ability to accurately pick up on emotions in other people. One big source of stress at work is conflict with others, especially when the conflicts aren’t handled with sensitivity. When faced with high-stakes conflicts, the CMOs made an extra effort to understand the experience of others. By empathizing during a conflict, they could more effectively negotiate resolutions that met the needs of multiple parties, not just their own.
Relationship Management is the ability to use awareness of your emotions and others’ to manage successful interactions. Relationship management skills are essential in navigating the emotional complexities of difficult conversations, like conflicts, bad news, significant changes, or tough feedback. It was the CMOs’ relationship management skills that helped them create an environment of trust with their teams. This meant they were comfortable asking for help when they felt overwhelmed or stretched to their limits.
From Insights to Actions
High EQ behaviors like this prevent burnout and benefit the medical officer, the team’s performance and retention for the organization. While most of us aren’t CMOs, we can still apply their approach to stress in our own work. Their strategies for stress management are adjusted over years of stressful tests at work. By understanding their use of emotionally intelligent practices, you can also begin to take control of your own stress and build your EQ in the process!
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