If you do these things when you’re stressed, you have higher emotional intelligence than most

Morgan Smith
CNBC
People who do three things to manage stress at work have a higher emotional intelligence.
People who do three things to manage stress at work have a higher emotional intelligence. Credit: Yuri Arcurs peopleimages.com/Nina Lawrenson/peopleimages.com

Research dating back decades has found that emotional intelligence is the greatest predictor of success in the workplace.

Having a high EQ can also help you manage stress and curb burnout, according to Kandi Wiens, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Master’s in Medical Education program.

For her new book, Burnout Immunity, Wiens interviewed hundreds of people thriving in high-stress environments, including hospital employees and police chiefs who remained motivated and optimistic while working as first responders at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Wien suggests paying close attention to how you cope with stress to gauge your emotional intelligence at work.

As Wiens explains in Burnout Immunity, cultivating healthier responses to stress can prevent burnout, which stems from chronic, unmanaged stress.

Paying close attention to how you cope with stress can show how emotionally intelligent you are - which may be the greatest predictor of success in the workplace.
Paying close attention to how you cope with stress can show how emotionally intelligent you are - which may be the greatest predictor of success in the workplace. Credit: New Africa - stock.adobe.com

Emotionally intelligent people rely on three strategies to manage stress at work:

  1. Self-awareness: Understanding what triggers your workplace stress and why
  2. Self-regulation: Recognising and accepting negative thoughts and emotions to arrive at a calm, cool-headed state, even when your stress ramps up
  3. Self-motivation: Believing that you’re capable of handling stressful situations and demands, knowing how to summon the motivation to complete a task or shift your mood from negative to positive

If you practice all three, “it signals higher emotional intelligence,” Wiens tells CNBC Make It.

How to become more emotionally intelligent at work

Emotional intelligence might be a natural gift to some, but it’s made up of skills that can be learned and improved with consistent practice.

According to Wiens, it all starts with understanding what triggers your stress at work.

Wiens offers three prompts to help you identify these triggers:

  • I feel unfocused and like my brain is “offline” when…
  • It makes me want to scream when my boss/coworker/direct report…
  • My stomach lurches when…

You can also identify your triggers by working backward through a recent stressful event at work.

“Think back over the last few weeks and look for any occasion that caused an immediate emotional or physical reaction,” Wiens explains in Burnout Immunity.

“Maybe you suddenly felt sad or irritable, frustrated or overwhelmed. Perhaps you lashed out at someone or became passive-aggressive.”

Any of these reactions can indicate that you’ve been triggered, she adds — and once you identify your triggered state, work backward until you can pinpoint what set you off.

When you’re stressed out and overwhelmed, your emotions can gain the upper hand, leading you to act in ways that aren’t productive or are even “downright harmful, which ends up stressing you — and your co-workers — out even more,” Wiens tells CNBC Make It.

Understanding your triggers can help you be more mindful in stressful work situations and self-regulate your emotions before they spiral out of control, she adds.

One self-regulation practice Wiens recommends is the “physiological sigh,” a deep breathing exercise that can help slow your heart rate and release carbon dioxide from the body more effectively, which can help balance your emotions. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Take a deep, long inhale through your nose for five seconds and hold.
  2. Take another quick inhale for one second and hold for three seconds.
  3. Sigh a slow, long exhale through your mouth for six seconds.
  4. Repeat the cycle three times.

Other self-regulation strategies include walking outside or, if you feel comfortable doing so, having a good cry, both of which release the feel-good hormones oxytocin and endorphins, Wiens says.

Practised over time, Wien writes in Burnout Immunity, these strategies are some of the most “powerful ways to immunise ourselves against burnout and remain happy and healthy at work.”

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