TTLS S1 14 | Workplace Toxicity


Dr. Karen Doll is a psychologist and consultant who partners with organizations as she focuses on mental health awareness and building psychological fitness.

This episode is important as May is Mental Health Awareness Month and as mental health is an under-focused and stigmatized component of everyday life, it is important to examine this aspect of the work environment that many organizations need to truly prioritize as we look to create cultures where people can truly thrive.

Dr. Doll will share firsthand areas where organizations can look to enhance wellbeing sustainably while placing a focus on psychological fitness.

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How Can Workplace Toxicity Impact Your Mental Wellbeing? An Interview With Dr. Karen Doll

In this episode, we have Dr. Karen Doll. She’s a psychologist and consultant who partners with organizations as she focuses on mental health awareness and building psychological fitness. As mental health is an under-focused and overly stigmatized component of everyday life, it is important to examine this aspect of the work environment that many organizations need to have truly prioritized as we look to create cultures where people can truly thrive. Dr. Doll will share firsthand the different areas that organizations can look to enhance wellbeing sustainably while placing a focus on psychological fitness. Let’s get to it.

Welcome to the show. We have Dr. Karen Doll. She’s here related to mental wellbeing, organizational culture, and what we can do as people to foster our own wellbeing and build psychological fitness. How are you?

I’m great. Thank you for having me.

I’m excited to have you here. Getting to know you, related to wellness and wellbeing. Before we jump into that, I want to hear a little bit more about your story. Let’s catch the audience up about who you are and what you’ve been working on.

Unrealistic expectations can erode people's self-esteem by making them think they are flawed. Click To Tweet

I am a Psychologist. I’ve been a Licensed Psychologist for many years. I live in Minneapolis. My professional journey was I’ve always worked in corporate. I function more as a consultant rather than working in mental health as a mental health practitioner. Early on in my career, I did a lot of work around leadership development and selection executive assessment and development assessment. Assessment was a big part of the first half of my career.

In more recent years, I’ve moved a lot more into facilitating or fostering mental health awareness in the workplace and a lot more in coaching, individual coaching, leadership development coaching, and group coaching. My passion is to promote mental health awareness in the workplace and help reduce the stigma. On the personal side, I have five kids. I live in Minneapolis with my husband. I used to say that how I build psychological fitness is by raising my five teenagers. Now, I can no longer say that I have five teenagers. They are ages 14 to 21. They are a lot of fun. In our spare time, we chase them around and go to their activities.

Related to the work that you do, one of the things about this show is we talk about toxic leadership. Talk to me about your perspective or how you enter that conversation. Talk to me about your connection to it.

TTLS S1 14 | Workplace Toxicity

Workplace Toxicity: The toxic impact of unrealistic expectations kicks in when individuals are in a situation that more is being asked of them than is humanly possible to accomplish. This can cause burnout.


A lot of the work that I do is working with individuals who tend to be high achieving ambitious people that are in demanding jobs and their plates are full. With the state of affairs now, as we all know, with everything in the wake of 2020, people are feeling compromised, overwhelmed and exhausted. We can talk more about the individual impact but in terms of the systemic issue that’s going on, some organizations are set up such that they’re optimizing getting as much out of people as individuals are willing to give. This is something that isn’t often talked about. Many job descriptions, especially at a higher level, are established such that 30% more than what is realistically able to be accomplished. This is a significant contributor to burnout. In a lot of the work that I do, I hear from people the toxic impact of unrealistic expectations and individuals are in a situation that more is being asked of them than is humanly possible to accomplish.

The main contributor to burnout is the demand capacity gap. What happens over time is it begins to erode people’s self-esteem because they end up on this cycle where, “I can’t get it all done. I’m not enough. I can’t meet all these deadlines.” They look at their colleagues and see how everybody else is killing it. They feel worse and somehow think that they’re flawed. A portion of that is it’s a systemic problem. It’s the organizations that have an infrastructure that a little more is being required of people than is humanly possible.

I appreciate hearing that because the way you laid it out here is some of this is systemic. It’s looking at how our expectations are aligned in that systemic process like looking at our performance management processes, what the overall expectations of “accomplishment” is or success is. It seems to me that given the pandemic and what’s going on out in the external environment, the success definition shifted for a month, it seemed like, then it went back to normal. Once organizations bought new office cares for people’s homes or whatever they did, it seemed like that was a temporary be-well mindset in 2020. What do you think about that and what are you seeing?

That resonates. It seems as though the expectations were modified quite temporarily. Managers are in a bit of a stuck spot because they’re getting requirements from their leaders and their team members or their employees are maybe not working on all cylinders, aren’t at full capacity. Maybe they have kids working at home or taking care of others. It creates this complex dilemma. What I hear is the organization modified expectations for a time. It has become a bit insidious that it has crept back to these unrealistic demands placed upon professionals.

The thing is these unrealistic demands and this performative culture has always been here. With the manifestation of COVID and other external environments that people are going through now, it’s like people at the individual level are realizing that. Burnout is creeping in at an accelerated rate because now I not only have to worry about this performance that I have to do at work, I also have to maintain my mental well-being at a greater state. My kids and my partner, whatever else may be going on in my head as a process, whatever else I’m trying to figure out. Organizations probably don’t even know how to adjust to that. With that being said, what can organizations or leaders do in service of promoting this true mental health awareness and building that culture of wellbeing that takes into account this complexity?

Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve cracked the code on that yet. Fortunately, there was more attention being drawn to it. Leaders and organizations are trying, exploring options, attempting to make changes, and trying to encourage these dialogues and conversations. Certainly, there is hope and it will take time. We don’t have a prescription yet for this. How do we make progress? We continue creating safe spaces for people to be able to voice their concerns. We validate that people are struggling now. The words that I hear the most in 2021 but certainly in 2020 are struggling, exhausted, overwhelmed and unmotivated. Subsequent to those descriptors, what I often hear is, “Why am I not motivated?” It’s like this almost shooting and shaming on themselves of, “I should be able to do this.” That perpetuates the internal dialogue of self-critic and the anxiety around all of it.

The examples that I’ve heard are having leaders speak from the top. Any messaging around mental health initiatives always has to come from the top. Leaders speaking about their own challenges can be impactful. Investing in programs that are going to support wellbeing and whether that’s benefits. Organizations are getting pretty creative there. Where the work needs to take place is looking at that demand, what our realistic expectations at every level, and having those tough conversations about how are we setting our people up for success.

Be acutely aware of what your own individual needs are and where you're kind of falling on the wellness continuum. Click To Tweet

That analysis of the work needs to be systemic and not, “Talk to your manager and switch out the amount of work you’re doing.” It needs to be more systemic and purposeful because if we put too much onus on the individual, people are already burned out. How much more can we put on people’s plates? Even finding solutions is a task. As we think about the individual, how can individuals take charge of their own mental health and foster wellbeing to build that psychological fitness?

There is shared accountability. The organizations have responsibility. Managers and leaders, then as individuals, we have a responsibility there too. Being acutely aware of what our own individual needs are and where we’re falling on the wellness continuum. I like to use a mental health continuum where in one end, we have people that are thriving and flourishing and doing awesome. On the other end, people may be experiencing pathology or clinical symptoms of depression or anxiety, so more on the mental illness realm. Most of us are in the middle somewhere. That can be tricky and ambiguous and confusing for us to understand, how do we address that when we’re in that middle struggling, not thriving space? Adam Grant had an article that was published that provided some descriptive and helpful language that resonated with a lot of people talking about this condition of languishing.

Getting in tune a little more with our own internal needs and putting some attention towards that, and figuring out what is the right level of intervention and care that we need. There is a lot out there around resilience-building activities and positive psychology actions, which I love and utilize with my clients, yet sometimes that’s not enough. The continued awareness of helping people understand where they are on that is useful. I would encourage people to take a close look at what are the external demands, what am I able to produce, and accomplish what’s realistic.

We all tend to overestimate what can be accomplished at a given, and underestimate the obstacles and problems that we face. You can see there’s already probably going to be a gap between what an organization is expecting and what an individual thinks they can produce. Also, setting boundaries and having the courage to speak up. Have those conversations and say, “This isn’t working for me. This is what I can do and this is what I’m not able to do.”

I know that’s scary. It sparks a lot of fear in people because they don’t want to be found out. They don’t want to be judged. They don’t want their manager to think they can’t handle it. They don’t want to have retaliation. They don’t want that to show up in their performance review or get fired. There are potential trade-offs. It is important for us to remember that we do have choices. We can demonstrate more behaviors to feel more command in our lives and demonstrate some of that agency. The pushback may be part of that.

Another thing is, we sometimes create problems for ourselves thinking that we need to be more than we do or thinking we need to accomplish more than we do. I call those phantom expectations. Doing some work and looking at how to reframe, “I should be able to do A, B and C.” My pushback on clients is usually something like, “According to who? According to what?” Oftentimes, we’re just making that up. That’s very common with high achievers or people that have perfectionist tendencies. That’s problematic. It generates more distress. It’s not realistic and the goalpost keeps changing.

You are never satisfied if you’re a perfectionist. One of the things at the individual level that you reminded me of that sticks to me related to mental wellbeing is we also need to normalize psychological fitness the same way we do physical fitness. Let’s create cultures and create environments where psychological fitness is prized and not viewed as, “This is a negative thing. I’m in a downward spiral.” We need to view that as more prized and important. It is a part of your everyday being as a human. What are your thoughts on that?

Now we’re at a unique space in time in our culture and in the workplace that maybe this is exactly the time that pivot and shift will happen. People who say, “I work with my personal trainer,” that’s glamorized. That’s like an ideal state and people are impressed by that. How amazing could it be if we had that level of intention, dialogue and openness about attending to our mental health? It’s relevant for all of us. We all need to attend to our mental health.

TTLS S1 14 | Workplace Toxicity

Workplace Toxicity: There is hope in solving unrealistic demands but it will take time. There’s no prescription yet for this. So it’s best to create safe spaces for people to be able to voice their concerns.


It’s like, “That person has that physical trainer. They’re taking care of themselves. They prioritize their health and wellbeing.” Whereas, if someone is having a conversation about the regularness around mental health or talking to a therapist or something like that, it’s viewed in light of, “What’s wrong with you? You must be going through something.” We look at it in such a different light. I hope, based on what you’re saying and the clients you’re working with, we’ll start to see more of these shifts and these conversations’ perspectives.

I hope so because the stigma is there. It is changing. People are reaching out more now for help. That is amazing. We’re moving in the right direction but that stigma is very intimidating. When people say they’re working with a therapist, the assumption sometimes can be negative like, “What’s wrong with you?” What if we reframed all of that and thought, “How awesome.” It’s important for preventative measures so that we can help ourselves when we’re in that struggling languishing space and avoid going into a downward spiral. That’s important too, the preventative approach.

To your point about systemic change, organizations may want to shift on their wellbeing benefits and stuff like that. Let’s go beyond the three EAP sessions or whatever. What if that was more normalized? Go beyond what we currently offer are put in the system.

That’s where the organizations are still learning. Having workshops and stress management is a great additive but that’s not enough.

It’s like, “Here’s your stress management course for the stress revoking. After you’ve dealt with the course, go back into the stress that we’re going to keep.”

“We’re going to keep piling it on.” That makes me think of another discourse and trend that’s out there. Somehow, we could do it all if only we would optimize and enhance productivity and manage our time better and be more efficient. At a certain point, we’re improving ourselves to death. That’s not it. There’s a Law of Diminishing Returns.

We avoid the root cause. We avoid the truth like, “What if we’re over-promising as an organization? Why don’t we look at that?” It’s like, “No, do more.” This has been great. I appreciate your insights. I talked about the importance of lifting up these conversations and how we don’t spend enough time talking about mental wellbeing. All this being said, what words of wisdom would you like to leave for our audience?

I would love for people to know like let’s acknowledge the struggle and why are we struggling. Sometimes that’s the wrong question. We have plenty of reasons that we already know about why we’re compromised in this day and age. We can have hope and we can take action to improve our mental health. My words of wisdom would be to reach out to each other. Connect with each other. Ask for help. Isolation and loneliness now are very significant. There are many resources out there, no matter where we are on that continuum. I believe the best inner work is done on our own and through reflection but also in community with other people.

It is really important for you to remember that you really do have choices. Click To Tweet

Thank you. Before we go, I wanted to give you an opportunity to share with the audience how they can reach you and any initiatives that you’re working on.

Thank you. The best place to reach me is on LinkedIn. I’m pretty active on LinkedIn. My passion projects are I have been doing, especially in 2021, a lot of group coaching under a number of topics, usually something around building psychological fitness. We collect 6 to 8 people to have virtual yet intimate small group conversations about a lot of this important stuff. I have found that to be super powerful even more so than individual coaching sessions because now, so many people feel like they’re the only one and that’s very isolating. I sometimes forget that people aren’t all talking about this stuff with each other because I’m talking about it with people every day. Using that as a channel to create more of that dialogue and facilitate some of those conversations in a brave and safe place. I’m writing my book on Building Psychological Fitness. A lot of the material comes from that.

I can’t wait to see that book on the shelves. I hope to get me a signed copy one day. I’m plugging that. I appreciate connecting with you, Dr. Doll. Thank you for your insights.

Thank you so much.

Thank you all for reading. Until next time.


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About Dr. Karen Doll

TTLS S1 14 | Workplace ToxicityDr. Karen Doll is a Licensed Psychologist, Consultant, and the author of Building Psychological Fitness (forthcoming October, 2021). She has spent 24 years partnering with industry leading organizations and coaching high achieving professionals to maximize talent (i.e., Target Corporation, Chevron, Google, LinkedIn, Capital One, Genentech, Salesforce). Karen is motivated by a desire to help people thrive, enhance well-being, and optimize leadership skills at every phase, from burgeoning new entrants to accomplished senior leaders. Throughout her career, she has remained committed to mental health awareness and advocacy, and bringing psychology into the workplace in order to achieve results. Karen also serves as a Lead Coach for BetterUp and shares the mission of empowering professionals to live with purpose, passion, and clarity. She is a 1994 Santa Clara University alumna and has gained most of her expertise in psychological fitness from her work as a mother of 5.