Health May 2017

Smart and healthy

Emotional intelligence reaps rewards at work

  • EI leads to better health and productivity
  • Can be taught
  • Four steps for leaders to take

Research shows that exchanging a one-hour commute for living within walking distance of work provides the same boost to our sense of emotional well-being as falling in love.

Commuting is stressful, and many of us don’t have the option of walking to work. In addition, work itself is often stressful, as a number of high–profile cases of karoshi—death from overwork—in Japan since the 1980s have highlighted. And, again, we can’t always choose less pressure or shorter hours.

However, we do have control over how aware we are of our emotional responses to potentially stressful situations, and how we manage them. These skills lie at the heart of the set of abilities known as emotional intelligence (EI), and there is a growing body of research showing that people with strong EI are healthier, happier and more productive.

Our two brains
Broadly speaking, our brains are divided into old and new parts. The reptilian/mammalian brain deals with survival responses (fight–flight), emotions and memory. The new, uniquely human, brain is responsible for language, abstract thought and imagination.

EI can be defined as the involvement of the new brain in reacting to the demands of the old one. People vary in their EI ability but, unlike the relatively fixed cognitive intelligence—IQ—and personality, EI skills can be learned and developed even further. This is most commonly achieved through training and coaching.

Emotions and health
When we sense a threat or emergency, stress hormones (for example cortisol) are released, raising our blood pressure and enabling the delivery of oxygen and glucose to our muscles to help us run or fight. Our blood also becomes sticky to minimise loss after injury.

This is ideal if followed by appropriate action. But, when triggered by such things as an angry reminder of a looming deadline and followed by hours of sitting before a screen, the emergency chemicals never get burned off. Instead, they cause calcium deposits, which damage arteries and can lead to heart attacks and strokes. This, incidentally, is one reason that exercise is such a boon to city dwellers’ health.

Cultural factors
EI is largely universal. However, there are important cultural differences between Japanese and non-Japanese, specifically the British. One key to understanding these differences is the Confucian concept of ‘socio-somatics’. Anthropologist Junko Kitanaka defines this as “a political vision of society in which the health of individuals is believed to derive from a harmonious social order”.

To maintain harmony in the workplace, Japanese—and Tokyoites in particular—will strive to keep their feelings to themselves, and refrain from complaining, questioning authority or showing disloyalty. Perhaps the famously long Japanese lifespans attest to an underlying truth in the notion that socio-somatics is a sound basis for health.

In contrast, British workers are more likely to vent their feelings as they arise and much more likely to answer calls from headhunters and move on when a job becomes stressful or stifling. They are also more likely to use all of their annual leave, take sick days, seek compensation for work-related illness and see work–life balance as a priority. In short, the motto of the British could be: Look after your own health and happiness, and that of the organisation will follow.

Leaders of multicultural teams will want to use their EI abilities to take the best from both worlds.

What leaders can do

  • Focus on growth not deficiencies

An important EI competency is the ability to work towards and achieve personal goals designed to actualise potential. Leaders who encourage and enable this will have more energised and productive teams.

  • Minimise anxiety

We are hard-wired to give disproportionate attention to threats. An employee who worries about demotion, or worse, after the annual performance review will spend time and energy fretting and marshalling options, rather than on work-related tasks. Equally, negative feedback, however valid, will be counter productive if not delivered with sensitivity and counterbalanced by an affirmation of strengths and successes.

  • Encourage realistic goal setting

People often avoid setting goals because they already feel overwhelmed, but goals can also be about priorities and to what you will say “no”.

  • Empathise

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey writes: “Unless you’re influenced by my uniqueness, I’m not going to be influenced by your advice”. Our identities need validation just as our bodies need food. Hungry workers struggle to absorb information or follow instructions.

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