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Emotional Intelligence In Healthcare – Lessons From The Frontline

Written by: Galit Cohen, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


I spoke with four frontline healthcare workers across the US to see how they’ve been getting through the pandemic. Marshall, a resident doctor at Akron Children’s Hospital, began his medical career at the start of the pandemic. When he found out he would be working on the COVID unit, he and his wife Polly had an honest conversation, where they decided Polly would move in with Marshall’s parents in Washington D.C. “I needed to make sure I felt safe and had the resources available to reduce the chances of me bringing this home to her.”

While Marshall admits it was overwhelming for him to go from being a student to, four days before starting residency, saying goodbye to his wife and facing a new disease, saying, “It was scary, but it was also very gratifying. I was finally doing what I yearned to do for years.”

Stephanie, an occupational therapist working in a hospital in Chicago, described her first experience with COVID as a “tsunami.” Saying, “It was crazy because no one would grasp how intense it was.” Stephanie went from working in the NICU Monday through Friday, to rehabbing COVID patients. “There were no weekends. We worked like 3 days on and 2 days off, then 5 days on 1 day off. It was the craziest thing because we had no concept of time. That was the intense part of it,” she added.

Mark, a travel nurse, who has worked in several COVID units on both the East and West Coast of the United States, describes his time working COVID units as “very stressful.” When asked about the conditions, he added “There was a sign that said, ‘You’re entering the hot zone.’ We would put our clothes in bags and change into surgical scrubs. Then we’d walk through these fake, makeshift double doors since we didn't have enough negative pressure rooms. Before you entered you had to make sure you had your N95. From there, that’s where you put on your gown and your gloves and everything. When you were inside the unit, everything was considered dirty already – all the beds, all the computers. It was just… It was bad.”

Empathic Leadership

While empathy is inherent to human nature, stress can get in its way. It takes resilient leaders, who can manage their own emotions to show up for their team. When individuals feel supported, trust rises.

Megan, who is known as the “COVID Chaos Coordinator” amongst her team, believes her leadership improved during the pandemic. Megan explained that prior to the pandemic the hospital’s senior leadership was a stagnant group who mostly stayed in their offices. However, since COVID took the world by storm, they have become “really visible.” Megan believes that this is because they realized how hard everyone was working. She’s even seen several senior leaders touring the units. “One of them even spent the whole day there, dressed up in a gown and gloves.”

“They’ve been great at showing their appreciation for those who work COVID. They send out daily and weekly recognition emails, thanking staff. Even those who don’t work COVID. They also come into the hospital to see the nurses and ask them if there is anything they can do to help improve anything. It means a lot to us, even if there’s nothing they can do” she adds.

Lack of Empathy from Leadership

Mark and Stephanie, unfortunately, had different experiences with their leadership.

“My manager was generally very fatherly, he was willing to listen and he wanted to hear about our feelings. But, during COVID, I noticed he got really short-tempered. He would explode and then run away” says Stephanie.

Unfortunately for Stephanie and her team, psychologist Daniel Goleman discovered that leaders have the most influence on a group's emotions. Leaders who are able to stay in control of their emotions, form an environment of trust and comfort. Conversely, leaders who are not able to manage their feelings cause collective distress.

Stephanie describes a bad situation where a COVID-positive patient came in for physical therapy. The director insisted on giving the patients therapy since they were already at the hospital.

Fast forward about an hour, two colleagues were in the same room the COVID patient was just treated in. They had no idea since the room was an outpatient room, and there was no sign or indication that a COVID patient had just been in the room.

Stephanie explains that a room that isn’t a negative pressure room only becomes neutralized after two hours or more with the door shut. Another colleague ran in to let them know, and naturally, they were very upset when they found out they were casually eating lunch in a COVID-infected room.

They addressed it with their supervisor and asked why there wasn’t a sign. His response was just “I don’t know. I don’t really know the procedure.”

Her manager's emotional response affected her own. “I shut down because I felt alone. I felt abandoned. The team really helped, but from someone that’s supposed to protect you and come from this place of power, he had no idea. He didn’t feel our pain and he wasn’t even going to bat for us. He didn’t care because he didn’t have to treat patients. He should have known the policies for cleaning rooms. Not knowing hurt us.”

Mark had a similar experience with leadership’s apathy to his well-being. “I had spent a lot of time in a room with a patient that tested positive, but I didn’t know. I didn’t have the proper equipment on, I had a mask, but not an N95. When they told me the patient was positive, Human Resources just told me to monitor my signs and symptoms, but they did not want to give me a test so that I could keep working.”

“I was very upset. I had to work the remainder of the day with other patients. Think about if there was cross exposure there. This was a big hospital. There was such a lack of care from management saying, ‘just monitor your symptoms,’ that’s it.”

Empathy is an essential part of emotional intelligence. A Lack of it can lead to feeling emotionally and psychologically unsafe – and in Mark’s case physically unsafe as well.

Lessons Learned

After hearing Stephanie, Marshall, Megan and Mark's stories, three takeaways became clear.


The healthcare staff who said that their leadership actively listened to them had completely different experiences from those whose leadership did not.

A simple yet powerful way to show empathy is through active listening. It lets people know they are being, not only heard but understood.

Mark feels that it would be interesting to have hospital leadership sit down the nurses on the unit rather than the managers. “The managers don't really do the work or see it. Most of the time they’re not even present. They need to listen to the staff that are actually working these 12-hour shifts.” Mark adds that “It goes back to housekeeping. They need to be heard, too. Those are very important roles, as well. Without them, I can’t imagine getting through my day. Listen to them, to their strain, and what they’re going for.”

Self-awareness and Emotional Management

Emotions are contagious, and they are most powerful from those at the top. Leaders who were not able to manage their emotions, like Stephanie’s supervisor, negatively impacted those around them.

Conversely, those who had awareness of their feelings were able to manage them. For example, Stephanie and her colleagues were able to set boundaries. Mark was able to go in with a positive mindset. Marshall made his own decisions on safety measures.

They were able to do this because they were aware of their emotions and chose to manage them, each in their own way.

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Galit Cohen, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Galit F. Cohen is a leadership coach specializing in evolving Emotional Intelligence. Galit brings a unique perspective from growing up in a multicultural household, which provided her with a trifocal lens to examine her relationship with others.

Galit is a fierce advocate for positive self-talk and passionate about empowering others to overcome self-doubt. She believes there is something magical about each person and loves helping others find that magic within themselves.

Galit holds a master's degree in Organization Development and Leadership and bachelor's degree in Communication and International Studies. She has been featured in Ariana Huffington's Thrive Global and Authority Magazine.



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