Professional tears: developing emotional intelligence around death and dying in emergency work

J Clin Nurs. 2011 Dec;20(23-24):3364-72. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2702.2011.03860.x. Epub 2011 Oct 21.


Aims and objectives: This paper explores how emergency nurses manage the emotional impact of death and dying in emergency work and presents a model for developing expertise in end-of-life care delivery.

Background: Care of the dying, the deceased and the bereaved is largely conducted by nurses and nowhere is this more demanding than at the front door of the hospital, the Emergency Department. Whilst some nurses find end-of-life care a rewarding aspect of their role, others avoid opportunities to develop a relationship with the dying and bereaved because of the intense and exhausting nature of the associated emotional labour.

Design: Qualitative study using unstructured observations of practice and semistructured interviews.

Methods: Observation was conducted in a large Emergency Department over 12 months. We also conducted 28 in-depth interviews with emergency staff, patients with terminal illnesses and their relatives.

Results: Emergency nurses develop expertise in end-of-life care giving by progressing through three stages of development: (1) investment of the self in the nurse-patient relationship, (2) management of emotional labour and (3) development of emotional intelligence. Barriers that prevent the transition to expertise contribute to occupational stress and can lead to burnout and withdrawal from practice.

Conclusions: Despite the emotional impact of emergency deaths, nurses who invest their therapeutic self into the nurse-patient relationship are able to manage the emotional labour of caring for the dying and their relatives through the development of emotional intelligence. They find reward in end-of-life care that ultimately creates a more positive experience for patients and their relatives.

Relevance to clinical practice: The emergency nurse caring for the dying patient is placed in a unique and privileged position to make a considerable impact on the care of the patient and the experience for their family. This model can build awareness in managing the emotive aspects involved in care delivery and develop fundamental skills of nursing patients near the end of life.

MeSH terms

  • Death*
  • Emotions*
  • Humans
  • Intelligence*
  • Terminal Care*
  • United Kingdom