Emotional Intelligence in Stress Management

By Margaret Chapman & Robin Clarke

In the July issue of Stress News, Mark Slaski raises the question as to whether emotional intelligence (EQ) is a concept useful within the context of stress management. Drawing on the emerging evidence from neuroscience, the stress literature and his own research, Slaski suggests that it would be more fruitful in tacking stress issues to take into account the importance of emotions. Here Slaski is echoing the assertions of Lazarus (1999) who emphatically makes the point that treating stress and emotion as if they were separate fields is absurd, and who notes “…where there is stress, there are also emotions…” (In Clarke, 2000).

If we accept these arguments therefore this would have a profound effect on the types of interventions that stress management practitioners develop. By recognising the interdependence between stress and emotions such approaches are in essence enhancing an individual’s EQ.

Both as a response to Slaski’s question and in a bid to encourage stress practitioners to re-think their stress management interventions as offering the possibility to develop EQ, this article outlines further UK-based research that provides evidence to support the assertion that emotional intelligence is indeed a concept that can be used in stress management.

Background

The implication of occupational stress for organisations has been bought into sharp focus in recent years by a number of high profile legal rulings and an increasing recognition that employers are responsible for the psychological, as well as the physical welfare of their employees. In the police service, as in the armed forces, compliance with Health and Safety legislation had until the late 1990s been largely a voluntary affair. The removal of ‘Crown immunity’ and the requirement for mandatory compliance has been a driver for a much greater awareness of such issues.

The intervention and study reported here was carried out by Clarke (2000) who at the time was a serving senior police officer within one of the UK’s largest police services. The profession is recognised as one that is highly stressful and a variety of research has identified a range of operational situations that give rise to stress, such as court appearances, the delivery of sudden death notifications and general organisational factors such as managerial support and work overload (Dick, 2000). Perhaps even more relevant in the context of this article are the emotionally charged situations that surround many, if not the majority, of the interactions police officers have with their ‘customers’. Often they are victims of crime, have just been involved in some form of accident or are distressed because a child is missing. Alternatively they may have, or be suspected of breaking the law and even being arrested. Either way there is often an abundance of emotion for the officer to deal with and more often, the emotion that manifests itself most is anger.

Within the context of the police service it is not only officers themselves who suffer as a result of their daily work, but the impact is also significant on partners and families, although often the triggers can be different. As Alexander & Walker (1996) discovered, it is not the dangers inherent in the job that caused the most problems, but the shift work, long hours, cancelled leave and the coping strategies employed by officers.

Drivers behind the intervention

For several years there had been pressure, from Government to reduce the number of health-related early retirements within the police service and whilst initiatives to put this into effect had been quite successful with increasing numbers of officers returning to some form of duty, overall rising levels of absenteeism were affecting the operational division under the remit of the second author. It was apparent that a high proportion of the longer term absences were as a direct result of stress related illness. In order to address the situation a decision was taken to tackle the issue by introducing a stress management intervention (SMI) for front-line officers, up to and including the rank of sergeant.

The Intervention

As Rob Briner (1999) has noted, often approaches to stress management consist of little more than “providing gymnasium facilities, salads in the canteen or advice on quitting smoking.” These and other similar measures were already in place and underpinned by a pro-active occupational health unit. However, recognising that an effective SMI would need to address much deeper psychological issues and the specific emotional aspects that characterised the work of an operational police officer some work to develop an appropriate intervention was undertaken. One criterion was that the chosen programme had to be deliverable with the minimum effect on operational policing. Following some exploratory work Dr Ken Hart (who was then working in the School of Psychology at the University of Leeds) was commissioned to undertake the assignment.

Hart had conducted similar work with the police in his native Canada and possessed the expertise to develop an intervention that would address the requirement that the SMI take a broad approach but focus particularly on emotion management (a key component of EQ). This emphasis was informed by Cherniss & Adler (2000) who had reported a study in which American Police Officers had participated in an intervention designed to develop emotional competencies and which had demonstrated an improvement in all round policing performance in addition the second author’s intuitive and commonsense belief was that if police officers could learn to better understand and manage their own, and others’ emotions (particularly anger), then they would be likely to experience lower levels of stress in their working lives.

Accordingly the overall objectives for the intervention were:

  1. To heighten awareness
  2. To increase knowledge
  3. Change attitudes & behaviour
  4. Offer the opportunity to improve quality of life, reduce the risk of illness and improve productivity.

A series of 1-day workshops were offered to all those officers, and support staff members, who regularly had face-to-face contact with the public within the division (around two hundred staff). The workshops incorporated a range of experiential exercises (meditation, visualisation and biofeedback) lectures and questionnaires. The topics covered were:

  • The causes & consequences of stress
  • Biological & emotional responses to stress
  • Stress coping strategies (perception, problem & emotion-focused)
  • Anger management (meaning; categories; sources; function & coping strategies)

The Study

In order to explore the link between stress and emotional intelligence following the workshops a sample of 100 officers, who had been amongst those invited to participate in the workshops, were asked to complete two questionnaires. The first was the Boston Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire1 based on the work of Weisinger (1998), who defines EQ as:

  • Self-awareness
  • Managing Emotions
  • Self Motivation
  • Relating to others; and
  • Emotional Mentoring

The Boston EIQ was designed to measure the extent to which officers could understand and manage their emotions. The second was a general lifestyle questionnaire developed to assess the current perceived stress levels of officers and the extent to which their lifestyle indicated their risk of suffering from stress. Whilst participants were asked to respond to the EQ using the work context, the stress questionnaire was designed to access information that would take into account broader lifestyle factors such as the wider family and environmental world of individuals (Hart, 1990; Lazarus, 1999).

The areas covered by this questionnaire can be briefly summarised as follows:

  1. Current level of stress
  2. Extent of anxiety
  3. Perceived level of life/work success
  4. Daily diet
  5. Workload
  6. Exercise
  7. Physical symptoms related to stress
  8. Work/life relationships
  9. User of external stimulants
  10. Concerns/challenges faced

The sample comprised 18 female and 82 male officers; all were operational ‘front-line’ staff working, on patrol or in specialist posts, dealing with drugs offences for example, all within a busy inner-city environment. Of the 100 participants, 86 were constables & 14 held the rank of sergeant. The officers in the sample varied in their length of service from less than two years to almost thirty, and in age profile from 23yrs to 54 yrs.

The Findings and Implications for Stress Management Practitioners

Amongst the sample a strong correlation was found overall and between each of the five EQ abilities (self-awareness; managing emotions; self-motivation, relating to others and emotional mentoring) and lower levels of stress, emotion management showing the strongest relationship. In essence what the study revealed was that those front-line operational police officers that were able to understand and manage their emotions, reported lower levels of stress and were, according to their reported lifestyles, at less risk of suffering from stress in the future. These results were evident across the sample with no real differences evident regarding the age, gender rank or length of service of the officers involved.

Matthew & Zeidner (2001) suggest that successful coping with stressful encounters is central to emotional intelligence. So in the light of these findings what implications does this have for stress management practitioners? Firstly, it suggests EQ can be developed and makes a difference to the experience of stress. Secondly widening our view of the experience of stress within the broader context of emotions offers up real prospects for SM practitioners to develop interventions that make a real difference to the quality of working life and emotional well-being of individuals and offers a real possibility of re-humanising organisations, fit to house the human spirit (Chapman, 2002).

Bibliography

Alexander, D.A. & Walker, L.G. (1996) The Perceived Impact of police work on police officers’ spouses and families, Stress Medicine, October 12(4), 239-246.

Briner, R. (1999) Against the grain, People Management, Vol.5 (19) pages 32-41.

Chapman, M.A. (2001) The Emotional Intelligence Pocketbook, Management Pocketbooks.

Chapman, M.A. (2002) Emotional Intelligence: The Challenge for HRM, Competency & Emotional Intelligence, Vol. 10 (1), Autumn.

Clarke, R. (2000) A study exploring the link between emotional intelligence and stress in front-line police officers, unpublished MSc dissertation Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Dick, P. (2000) The social construction of meaning of acute stressors: a qualitative study of the personal accounts of police officers using a stress counselling service, Work & Stress, Vol 14 (3), pages 226-244.

Hart, K. (1990) Introducing Stress & Stress Management to Managers, Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 5, pages 9-16.

Lazarus, R.S. (1999) Stress & Emotion: A New Synthesis, Free Association Books.

Matthew, G. & Zeidner, M. (2001) Emotional Intelligence, Adaptation to stressful encounters & Health Outcomes, In Bar-On, R. & Parker, J.D.A. The Handbook of Emotional Intelligence, Jossey-Bass.

Weisinger, H. (1998) Emotional Intelligence at Work, Jossey-Bass.

Margaret Chapman is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist, EI developer & researcher currently writing up her doctoral thesis exploring emotional intelligence discourses in learning & development at Loughborough University. Robin Clarke is a business psychologist specialising in EI & stress assessment. Both are partners of Boston Business Psychologists.

 

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