We may be entitled to expect that everyone working in the caring sector would already possess the necessary skills to be able to demonstrate compassion and empathy towards those receiving care. However, we continue to hear about too many examples of poor attitudes towards some very vulnerable people by a small but significant minority of staff. The fact that some care providers perform better than others suggests that standards can be improved. Clearly there are fundamental conditions that have to be in place including quality leadership, adequate resources, open and respectful communication but the real key to delivering quality person-centred, compassionate care is to have the right staff in place.
The best organisations will invest time and energy into their recruitment and selection processes and, while there are no guarantees, this is likely to pay dividends. You can also be sure that the best staff will be attracted to the best organisations and will also be more likely to stay. So, what should we be looking for in care staff? Qualities that are often highlighted such as reliability, flexibility, honesty, empathy and respect, tend to be the types of qualities that enable relationships to be formed and trust to be developed. However, how can we be sure that new recruits possess such qualities and what can we do with existing staff who appear to be lacking?
The qualities mentioned above are more evident in individuals who are higher in emotional intelligence (EI). This is because emotionally intelligent individuals are able to recognise and manage their own emotions as well as the emotions of others. They are more receptive to the needs of people who find it difficult to articulate their concerns. Measures of EI have been available for many years in the business world and it is now possible to apply a measure of EI to the caring sector to assess new recruits and identify problems in existing staff.
EI is distinct from IQ. It is generally accepted that IQ is fixed. It might be possible to enhance scores through repeated testing but essentially IQ is a stable measure of general intelligence. EI on the other hand can change. One of the key elements of EI is self-knowledge. We can always learn more about ourselves as long as we are open to the concept. Experience is important but learning through experience requires critical reflection and this can be taught. Reflecting on critical incidents also enables us to modify how we respond to similar future situations. An organisation that promotes critical reflection in an open blameless fashion will always learn through experience and continue to grow. Critical reflection also enables us to recognise our limitations.
Vicarious learning requires the person to be able to experience learning though the behaviour of others and this is linked to empathy. Sharing experiences in a safe environment helps others to learn without necessarily making the same mistakes and helps to promote positive risk taking rather than stifling innovation and development. Recognising that we can all make mistakes reminds us that we are human and also makes us more tolerant of others, which is an essential quality in the caring sector.
Selecting staff who are high in emotional intelligence should be a priority for care organisations. However, providing an environment that promotes openness, critical reflection, sharing and tolerance will also help the organisation to retain the best staff. It is not always necessary to organise formal ‘on the job’ learning. A philosophy which promotes self-development for staff will undoubtedly lead to the promotion of independence for those who receive care.