This article was originally published in the September edition of the OHS Professional Magazine by the Safety Institute of Australia, Australia’s professional association for the health and safety profession.
Building mentally safer workplaces is of ongoing importance to organisations and Government. A 2015 study by Safe Work Australia found that over 7,500 Australians are psychologically injured at work each year. These psychological injuries total some $480 million in claim costs and typically result in extended periods of time off work for those injured (typically 14.8 weeks). Considerable effort has been taken to identify initiatives, strategies and legislation to prevent or minimise psychological injuries in workplaces. One initiative among many that has been rated as essential by expert panels of employers, mental health professionals and employees with experience of mental health problems has been the development of employees’ emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence refers to a set of skills that help us make intelligent responses to, and use of, emotions. Emotions play a central role in psychological injuries caused by workplaces, particularly traumatic stress, depression and anxiety disorders. Research on emotional intelligence suggests it is a useful competency to develop within people to help prevent and bounce back from these types of injuries. People with higher levels of emotional intelligence report feeling less stressed, are physically healthier, build better working relationships with colleagues and outperform their less emotionally intelligent peers.
Improving mental health through EI
A recent research study conducted by Genos International in collaboration with WorkSafe Tasmania and the Department of Premier and Cabinet Tasmania, examined the relationship between individuals’ level of emotional intelligence and their level of resilience, mindfulness, occupational stress and employee engagement, in the working population of Tasmania. Importantly, the correlation between these variables and average annual salary for the different occupations of the participants involved in the study was also examined as a way of estimating the likely return on investment (ROI) that might be achieved from making incremental improvements in emotional intelligence.
As expected, results from over 1,700 participants in the study found that people with higher levels of emotional intelligence also had higher levels of resilience and mindfulness and lower levels of occupational stress. They also reported greater levels of employee engagement. Uniquely, the study also found that people with higher emotional intelligence were typically working in higher-paid jobs. Statistical techniques were able to establish that the average annual salaries of employees could improve by $3,801 per annum from a 1-point increase in their emotional intelligence.
The Tasmanian study suggests that organisations can make their workplaces more mentally safer by encouraging people to improve their emotional self-awareness (via self-reflection and techniques such as mindfulness meditation) and their emotional self-management (by engaging in self-care behaviours that build resilience and wellbeing, such as eating better, sleeping more, limiting screen time and caffeine, and regularly exercising). Importantly, the study also showed that organisations could also make their workplaces more mentally safer by helping people help others.
One of the more interesting findings of the current study was the correlation between skills of emotional intelligence to do with the awareness and management of others’ emotions, and personal levels of resilience and stress. They correlated almost as highly as the skills of emotional intelligence to do with the awareness and management of one’s own emotions.
A lot of work in developing resilience and stress management focuses on the self-oriented skills of emotional intelligence, self-awareness and self-management. The Tasmanian study suggests that of almost equal importance to personal resilience and stress management is building employees’ capacity to help others, that is, for example, their capacity to positively influence the way others feel, to help others deal effectively with stressful situations, and to help others resolve workplace conflicts.
Building emotional intelligence
Recent meta-analytical research (i.e. research on research studies) on the development of emotional intelligence has shown that good programs improve individuals’ emotional intelligence by, on average, 17 percentile points. One of the benefits of these programs is that the development of emotional intelligence capabilities doesn’t just help improve individuals’ stress management, relationships and wellbeing at work. People most often transfer the learning to all other aspects of their lives, helping them become better partners, parents and building better relationships outside of the workplace.
The return on investment from emotional intelligence development is likely to be more than simply a reduction in psychological injuries and stress-related leave claims. As previously mentioned, emotional intelligence has been shown to account for variance in various indices of workplace performance, and other variables that can readily be monetarised such as absenteeism (the number of sick days off people take), employee engagement and employee turnover. Essentially, people with higher levels of emotional intelligence tend to perform better, have less days off per year, report higher levels of employee engagement and aren’t as likely to leave or turn over (either voluntarily or involuntarily).
In summary, the Tasmanian study and other research like it confirms that developing the emotional intelligence of employees will result in a reduction of psychological injuries. Moreover, it is likely to improve staff wellbeing and performance within and outside of the workplace.