Nurses 'can learn emotional intelligence'

Nursing students with low emotional intelligence more likely to drop out, a Scottish study claims

Emotional intelligence may be learned, according to the first part of a study involving hundreds of nursing students at Scottish universities.

The study also found that students who dropped out of their nursing courses had lower levels of emotional intelligence, indicating a future need for extra support.

The research, by Edinburgh Napier University's Austyn Snowden and the University of Edinburgh's Rosie Stenhouse, was prompted by the Francis Report recommendation that future nurse trainees should ‘demonstrate possession of the values, attitudes and behaviours appropriate for the profession’.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and express emotions and an awareness of the emotions of others, such as patients and colleagues.

Professor Snowden told Nursing Standard: ‘Emotional intelligence increases with age. In general women are more emotionally intelligent than men.’

In total, 868 nursing students took part in the study. Students self-rated their emotional intelligence at the start of their first and second years of training.

The ratings from their third year are yet to be published.

Study methodology

Students were given two questionnaires – one measuring personality traits and another measuring perceptions. They had to rate their responses on a scale of one to five to statements including:

I find it hard to understand the non-verbal messages of other people.

I can tell how people are feeling by listening to the tone of their voice.

The fluctuations in results from the first two years suggest that emotional intelligence can be learned.

Professor Snowden told Nursing Standard: ‘We found emotional intelligence changes. If emotional intelligence is a personality trait that you are born with, that would have stayed the same during two time periods. But it didn’t, it dropped.’

However, part one of the study shows nursing students' emotional intelligence scores appear not to affect their performance on the course.

In addition, those with previous caring experience did not do better on the course.

In an article about his study Professor Snowden said: ‘Previous caring experience may not have the same negative effect in future years. It could be comparable to an experienced driver having to relearn how to drive to pass a formal driving test.’

Professor Snowden and colleagues are currently looking at factors including stress, resilience and energy levels on nursing students’ emotional intelligence.

RCN head of education Anne Corrin said: ‘Emotional intelligence is important for nurses and we need to understand better how we help students develop that.

‘It is fundamental that mentors have high levels of emotional intelligence. Students learn a lot from their mentors about how to behave. This can then be explored and reinforced in a classroom when you have the opportunity to reflect on placement experience.’