This study examined the hypothesised link between perceived stress and emotional intelligence in a variety of healthcare students. Previous work had suggested a link between EI and perceived stress in student populations.
Emotional Intelligence in this context appears to be at some level a moderator of stress. However its effect seems to be slightly less pronounced at time two where generally higher levels of stress were reported. The reason for the higher levels of stress was not formally identified but many of the groups had upcoming exams which may have contributed to increased stress. Given that the question of interest was whether high EI may help students cope with stress, the measures at a time of average versus high stress is a useful feature of this dataset. Nevertheless, because of the correlational nature of the study, we cannot conclude the direction of any causal connection. It may be that as people get more stressed, their EI scores decrease, or that as EI scores decrease for whatever reason, stress increases. However, given that EI is more stable than PS, it might make sense to hypothesise that it is EI that is affecting stress rather than the other way around. There may be important individual differences in the behaviour and stability of EI that would certainly warrant further investigation.
Dental students were more stressed toward the end of the first year of study than the medical students. This dental cohort differed in that it had the youngest mean age and was more ethnically diverse than any of the other groups and this may have contributed to higher levels of perceived stress. However, low numbers particularly for dental students in the follow up stage of the research made this impossible to follow up meaningfully in this study.
The study suggests that Emotional Intelligence seems to be a relatively stable construct as measured using the Schutte scale and as claimed by the originators of the scale [25
], while perceived stress, rather unsurprisingly, varies significantly at different times. While there is variability in the EI scores, this would be expected even if EI is a relatively stable trait because of error of measurement in the test. Nevertheless, other measures of EI may yield more accurate, stable or informative information and should be compared to the Schutte scale used here.
This study is preliminary and the sample size is small, primarily because of the low return rate at Time 2. Nevertheless, even looking at only those students who completed all scales at both times, some interesting results were found. There is some indication that Emotional Intelligence is relatively stable over time, though it would useful to compare different measures of EI, including both trait and performance measures, to see if this holds true with different conceptualisations and measures of EI.
It is interesting that there were no gender, age or disciplinary group differences in EI scores for this group of health care students as this is not the case for other studies using different populations. Petrides and Furnham [27
] demonstrated higher self estimated EI in males than females which in turn correlated with measured scores. Conversely, some studies have found females score higher in EI [28
]. A significant developmental increase in social and emotional competencies from early adulthood to middle age has also been suggested by others [29
]. Bar-On, R., 2000. Emotional and social intelligence: Insights from the emotional quotient inventory (EQ-i). In: Bar-On, R. and Parker, J.D.A., Editors, 2000. Handbook of emotional intelligence, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA, pp. 363-388. However the continued use of different instruments from different theoretical conceptualisations of EI makes such results difficult to compare. It would be useful to repeat this study with larger numbers and a variety of student groups to determine whether professions in healthcare attract students with similar EI scores and how those may or may not differ from other groups. There is little literature with which to reference the student scores found in this study however the scores reported in the original scale validation paper for the EI measure cited mean scores for therapists and prisoners. The students' scores in this study were higher than those of prisoners and less than those of practicing therapists.
While this study suggests the link between EI and stress may be worth pursuing, much work remains to be done to fully explore the relationships between emotional intelligence and stress in students in various health professions and this study raises some interesting questions for further research.
One limitation of the present study is that it is based on correlational rather than experimental evidence, a limitation inherent in many studies of personal attributes. Further work will be required to determine how EI impacts on stress, and also on adaptation or coping and whether interventions may facilitate development of effective strategies.
Another potential limitation is that the EI variables in this study might significantly overlap with other variables not included in the study, which would suggest that EI may not be a distinctive measure. There is work which suggests EI is distinct from a wide variety of other measures, including the big five personality factors, self-esteem, trait anxiety, verbal and performance intelligence, and other well established measures [31
]. However, it may be that other individual differences can account for variance in performance and stress attributed to EI. Since studies often use different conceptualisations of EI it makes definitive conclusions difficult. Other traits, for example, neuroticism or anxiety, may be confounded with reports of perceived stress. Thus, future work should control for other personality traits potentially associated with the Perceived Stress Scale.
EI research is still in its infancy, and further research is needed before we can fully understand the role that EI might play in moderating stress or other outcomes. Future work may develop the suggestion that higher EI may be associated with lower perceived stress by investigating whether teaching EI might increase feelings of control and competence. If EI skills can be developed then this should lead, in turn, to more effective coping, and better psychological adaptation.