How emotional intelligence can boost staff health and wellbeing

All living things have essential needs that must be met for them to thrive and flourish. For plants, it is the need for sunlight, water and soil, while for humans, their emotional needs will determine their emotional health and wellbeing.


If you read nothing else, read this…

  • An important aspect of emotional intelligence is learning to notice feelings as they occur.
  • Employees can gain access to the deeper, quieter signals in the brain that allow more creative, intuitive and inspired levels of thinking by learning how to calm down the emotional brain, known as the limbic region. 
  • The most insightful thinking often occurs during non-work activities, such as when resting, during physical exercise or when an employee experiences something new.

When employees’ emotional needs are not met, whether through connecting with others or meaningful work, they become unhappy, angry and anxious. To meet these basic needs, humans possess a set of innate resources. How effectively an employee learns to harness their resources to achieve what they want from life is the essence of emotional intelligence (EI). Three examples of how to do this are described below.

Become aware of feelings

One of the most profound qualities of being human is the capacity for self-awareness, such as the ability to notice and think about feelings. All feelings are useful in that they are the body’s ‘messenger’, which tells an employee what they need and how to behave. An important aspect of EI is learning to notice feelings as they occur.

The longer an employee ignores, represses and denies their feelings, the more likely it is that they will be unable to manage them later on. For example, on experiencing a mild sense of frustration, an employee can do something to manage this feeling, such as breathing deeply, considering why they feel this way, or taking some positive action to address the cause of their frustration.

Develop clear thinking

Why is it that employees often give excellent advice to others, yet do not apply this to themselves? One reason is that staff are more anxious about their own problems, which dramatically interferes with their ability to think clearly and solve the problem.

This is most noticeable when staff feel threatened, resulting in them, for example, freezing during an important presentation, panicking when late for a meeting or losing their temper during a discussion. Under such conditions, employees literally lose access to their rational thinking brain, the prefrontal cortex, and their IQ drops dramatically.

In contrast, employees can gain access to the deeper, quieter signals in the brain that allow more creative, intuitive and inspired levels of thinking by learning how to calm down the emotional brain, known as the limbic region. 

Research has found that people tend to do their most insightful thinking when relaxed and not trying too hard. For example, Managing the brain in mind by David Rock, published in August 2009, found that 90% of people did their most insightful thinking during non-work activities, such as when resting, during physical exercise or when experiencing something new.

Use positive imagination

Another powerful human resource is the imagination, which can be used to rehearse and plan for whatever outcome an employee wants to achieve, such as giving a confident presentation, succeeding in sport or feeling calm and relaxed after a stressful day.

By creating a positive expectation, staff are unconsciously drawn to make this happen, which is why employees who expect success tend to succeed and those who expect to fail may not achieve their goals.

An extension of the imagination is to use role-play and practice. This makes the experience more real and, at the same time, safe and non-threatening to rehearse. Imagination and role-play act as ‘reality generators’, firing off the same neurons as if the action was completed for real. For example, if an employee feels anxious about a meeting, they could visualise how they would want it to go and then role-play it several times with a trusted colleague.

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The innate human resources are both a gift and a burden. If unmanaged, they can bring out the worst in an employee, such as irrational thinking, uncontrolled emotions and inflexible behaviour . But learning how to actively manage these resources through EI will bring out the best in employees’ relationships, work performance and emotional wellbeing.

Jo Maddocks is director of research at JCA Occupational Psychologists