The topic of psychological fitness and wellbeing is something we need to go back to regularly. Unfortunately, despite the stigma regarding mental health steadily being shattered, burnout and chronic stress rates among workers are still at an all-time high. In this episode, joining Dr. Kevin Sansberry is Dr. Karen Doll, licensed psychologist, consultant, coach, and advisor on mental health in the workplace. She shares with us insights from her book, Building Psychological Fitness: How High Performers Achieve with Ease, and gives helpful advice to those experiencing burnout and the companies and organizations enforcing them as well. Tune in for an insightful discussion on how to handle stress in the workplace and prevent the burnout that manifests into toxic behaviors.
The Toxic Leadership Podcast
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Dr. Kevin Sansberry II is a behavioral scientist and executive coach with expertise in toxic leadership, human capital strategy, and creating inclusive cultures of belonging to enhance organization performance. Over the years, Kevin has focused on providing research-informed solutions in various settings such as higher education, nonprofit, sales, and corporate environments.
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Toxic Leadership Live: Revisiting Psychological Fitness And Wellbeing with Dr. Karen Doll
Dr. Karen Doll, how are you?
I’m good. How are you?
I was telling everybody about psychological fitness and what my journey was as it relates to mental wellbeing in the workplace. I look forward to hearing some techniques and tips that you have as it relates to employees who are working these 9:00 to 5:00 roles where they feel drained at the end of the day. They’re having a toxic work environment and they don’t have those solutions. I’m excited to talk to you about that.
I’m looking forward to it too and a follow-up from what we talked about before. I can’t remember how many months ago that was, but the state of affairs is the same. People are still stressed, strained, drained and perhaps even more so now. There have been residue that has built up. What I’ve seen is it seemed like there was a little bit of a glimmer of hope where people were thinking, “Maybe we’ll be able to go back to work.” That brought fear to other people. All the confusion and disruption in organizations continuing to change the plan on people added to the pile.
Since we talked on one of your podcast episodes, you released a new book talking about psychological fitness. Tell the readers a little bit about that.
What we’ve done is there’s a pre-order for the book. We did that as a promotional thing, which was amazing and the paperback book will be released early in 2022, but it’s completed and I have been doing a lot of talking about it. It is teaching practices that are applicable for us to enhance mental wellbeing. When I use the term psychological fitness, I’m referring to emotional and mental health.
When you work with individuals or organizations, what is your starting point to introduce this concept where people may look at emotional and mental wellbeing? Those types of skills are not necessarily paramount. They look at it more as nice to have or they don’t value it as much as they do physical fitness. How do you break through that stigma?
Organizations are set up to take as much from us as we’re willing to give.
There is still stigma and people do still have internal blockers. Honestly, all the COVID stuff has accelerated the conversation. It has helped reduce the stigma and it has allowed some of these issues to surface and people have a little more permission to speak to them. How I introduced it to organizations is talking about mental health as it’s not a binary concept.
It’s not like we’re mentally healthy or not or we have a mental illness or not, but there’s a spectrum of mental health and wellbeing. On the green end would be people who are thriving, flourishing and feeling great in a lot of different categories. Their mood, behaviors, their sleep is good and they’re getting exercise.
On the other end, the red zone would be people that are experiencing more symptoms of anxiety, depression or clinically diagnosable mental illness. Most people now are in the middle of that spectrum, in the orange and yellow phase. If I introduce it in a regular language, this is not a binary static state. For some of us, it’s different every day.
“Yesterday, I felt super sluggish, drained, strained and stressed. Now, I feel pretty good.” It can be something that changes in terms of moment to moment or day to day. Sometimes people are experiencing a longer episode of malaise, anxiety or whatever. I usually start off by saying, “Let’s give each other permission to have the conversation and all the stuff that’s out there now on social media, it’s okay to not be okay.”
People are listening and audiences are open to it. Frankly, what I’m hearing from organizations is, “Yes, we all acknowledge it. We see it. We don’t know what to do. We don’t know what to offer people and sometimes when we do offer programs or options to help people with mental health and wellbeing, their utilization rates are still low.” We are still stuck where companies are trying to do something and some individuals in the workplace are still concerned about raising their hand, speaking up and saying, “I could use some help.”
Let me do an elephant in the room because I liked doing that. My elephant in the room is, have you experienced the malaise or I’m in the red zone because of the workplace itself if? If so, what are some things to look out for, some advice if employees are like, “I’m not going to mental health things at work because the problem is work?” What’s your advice there?
It’s a super good point for a number of reasons in your platform of toxic leadership. My lens would be, I hear people who experienced the fallout of that and what leads to toxic behaviors. Many times, it’s a problem with people’s mental health. They aren’t coping effectively and it’s coming out sideways with negative work behaviors.
I would see that portion of it, but also this idea of chronic stress and burnout is a workplace problem. It is an infrastructure problem and that’s something that is not talked about as much. People are experiencing burnout and organizations are set up to take as much from us as we’re willing to give. Managers aren’t going to come around and tell people, “Stop selling so much stuff. Please stop bringing some value.”
Unfortunately, the responsibility lies on employees’ managers to be able to set those boundaries and speak up because in burnout, there’s a demand, capacity and balance. More is being asked of a human than that human is able to deliver. It’s unfortunate because there are many people that are experiencing burnout now and it has become exacerbated for a number of reasons. The organization holds responsibility, but also we, as people are compromised because we don’t have the same level of resources that we have had. The residue and the stress of the uncertainty in our world builds. It’s a real thing. I know everyone is impacted to varying degrees and impacted differently.
What can people do about it? I think having conversations with their boss and we hope that many places offer that safe space. If our boss doesn’t feel like a safe person, finding somebody else, but being able to identify what is okay with me and what is that okay with me. If it’s not okay with me to send emails at 11:00 PM, I need to have that conversation because sometimes what happens is we can assume the organization and the leaders are expecting us to respond to the emails at 11:00 PM.
Self-care is not selfish. It’s a responsibility.
That can generate unnecessary stress because sometimes that, in fact, isn’t the expectation. Some of it is like, “Let’s climb down the ladder of assumptions and make sure that what we’re stressed about, this deadline, is it negotiable or is it not negotiable? Have we had those conversations?” Get a little bit of grounding because we can get ourselves worked up over what sometimes we can uncover to be phantom expectations.
Since you’re going down that path, what are some other signs that I might be experiencing burnout to look out for? If I do want to talk to somebody, how do I know I’m in that state of the red versus the green?
The three components of burnout or exhaustion, overwhelm and cynicism. The cynicism is the part that people often notice as a big difference. On any given day, people that are in demanding jobs are tired. “At the end of every week, I’m tired.” That’s normal and expected, and then we need to rest, recover and replenish. The cynicism is when we start to notice the dread or not having the same level of passion for what we did or our attitudes. It can play out in a lot of different ways, but we find ourselves rolling our eyes or like, “What’s the point of even doing this? I’m on the verge of giving up.” Those would be the components. Losing the zest, vitality, interest and anybody is susceptible to burnout. We all have human limitations.
Are there any particular roles that you think are more prone to burnout because I’ve heard people from the service industry experience it a lot? We’re sitting on news and people are quitting on mass across the country in the service industry. I’m curious if you recognize any other industries.
I’m sure there are statistics and research out there. Healthcare is a big one with high statistics of burnout, especially these last several years. People in mental health care and this idea of compassion fatigue is a real thing if we don’t have healthy emotional boundaries set up and anything that requires over X amount of hours in a week. At a certain point, we are simply no longer effective. Knowledge workers are, in general, at risk because they don’t typically have a cap or a union to protect them from the number of hours that are expected.
What got you into the work, in particular? Have you had any personal experience with burnout or the mental wellbeing piece? What got you interested in doing this?
I’m a psychologist and I always have been. I’ve been a psychologist in the workplace for many years. What got me interested in chronic stress and burnout and that piece of it is I definitely identify as a high individual. I run the risk of staying in fifth gear for too long and not moving into third gear and so many of the people that I work with have that challenge. Their challenge is maybe to run hot for too long, over-commit and then not recognize the signs of when their bodies need to rest. When I was about 40, I had five little kids and it was burning the candle at both ends and bumped into an experience where I’m like, “I can’t do this anymore.”
It wasn’t a particular event, but it was an accumulation of the water boiling and finally realizing I needed to make a change. The most significant change that I made at that time was to upgrade my mindset about self-care and the upgrade was self-care is not selfish. It’s a responsibility of mine because before, for whatever reason, I had this belief that it was selfish to do stuff for yourself. It’s not rational, but that’s what I believed.
In society, we put a lot of burdens, especially on working mothers in the first place, as it relates to like, “You don’t take care of yourself. You got to take care of the five little ones you got at home.” I’m sure there’s a certain amount of guilt that may manifest as it relates to that.
If there’s anything that I could communicate to female professionals that have kids and families is that guilt is brutal, judgment latent and useless. Whenever I hear and the shoulds are often coming from a place of guilt, “I shouldn’t be in the kid’s classroom. I should be at this conference call. I should be going to the soccer practice or whatever, fill in the blank. I should be making a homemade meal.” This applies to men and women. Everyone is stretched thin. The shoulds I see as guilt as a gravity problem. When I say gravity problem, it’s like, “I feel guilty that I can’t be in these three places at once.” It’s like, “I feel guilty that I can’t fly when I jump out of a seven-storey window.”
Upgrade our self-talk.
When you talk about psychological fitness and you talk about building that resiliency, we have to have that resiliency to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and have these kinds of conversations. A lot of this guilt, these shoulds or my expectations of myself are all rooted in perfectionism and rooted in that type A personality that everybody talks about in America when in reality, it was it’s all constructed and it’s killing us. We have to get in first gear and be in the driver’s seat as it relates to our mental health.
My whole platform is we can empower ourselves and there are practices and things we can do to enhance our mental health. There is shared accountability. We do our part, our leaders and organizations need to do their part, but no matter where we’re starting, we can take some action to enhance our wellbeing. Even if we’re not to say that these little practices are sufficient, they’re not treatment or interventions that are going to cure depression but even if we’re in a depressive state, there are some things that we can do to enhance mental health no matter where we’re starting.
For you to work on your mental health, it’s free. You don’t need fancy services or anything like that. You have to make a commitment to yourself. You have to end that cycle of abuse internally that we put ourselves through.
It’s the inner bully.
I’ll always tell people that inner bully that’s in the passenger side of your car, which is your mind, you don’t listen to that person every time. That person’s biased. That person is telling you everything you’re not doing. That person is comparing you to everybody on Instagram and every mom or dad. Don’t listen to that person. That person is a heuristic. They call it a mental shortcut. A lot of times, it’s wrong, but we tend to let that take control of our mindset, not actively thinking and not actively reflecting.
It’s especially when we’re triggered. I tell my clients it’s fear and anxiety.
Your amygdala is being hijacked. That’s why I tell people like, “Meditation, psychological wellbeing and all this stuff is not going to cure anything. You have to be able to do it in every situation, good and bad because you want to let your amygdala know that it’s not in control and that you can maintain that executive function in the brain.” What words of wisdom or parting words of advice would you want to share with the readers?
I would say for everybody that is struggling, “You’re not alone.” That whole energy was how I decided to do my book and have a message to many was because I kept hearing from people how exacerbated their challenges were. They think they’re the only one and everyone else on Instagram Live, LinkedIn or whatever looks like they’re killing it. There still is this isolation and feeling of loneliness. I would say that, “I need help,” are my new three favorite words to tell people. Even if it’s reaching out to a friend or a colleague, the isolation exacerbates and now that’s a big problem. Finding the right size intervention is important.
Sometimes all the stuff that’s out there, which is real, helpful and scientifically-based like breathing exercises, meditation and exercise. All of that is real and helpful and for some people, perhaps not sufficient. Suicide rates, addiction rates, adolescent suicide, all of these stats are crazy high now. If people are in that red zone, call for help, find somebody or call a crisis line. There is help out there. Get the right size intervention, don’t be afraid to set boundaries and have tough conversations.
I appreciate you telling people the right size intervention because I think we try to emulate and do what works for everybody else, but not look at what works for me. I appreciate you saying that.
There is help out there. Get the right-sized intervention, and don’t be afraid to set boundaries and have the tough conversations.
It’s because sometimes something might sound like a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. I have a number of clients that are out on medical leave now for burnout. I remember having conversations with them when they were at the cusp of, “I don’t know if I can do this anymore.” Saying, “More yoga isn’t going to solve this, but that’s probably helpful. It’s probably sustained you longer than you would have otherwise. Yet when you’re working 90 hours a week, every week without a break, your mind and body are connected and something is going to give. Your body is going to start screaming and saying no more.”
If you have previous trauma that you never even revisited or never even healed, yoga’s not going to help you. You have trauma you still have to unpack with that knife out to let the wound heal. That is well met because there are a lot of people who have to compartmentalize for so long or not address trauma because they have to keep going. I think your point is well taken on you need to find what works for you because that’s the equitable way to heal.
Upgrade our self-talk, the bully, “I should do this. I should do that.” It’s self-persecution. We could even upgrade and say like, “I could do this. It would feel great if I went to work out.” Even that is a little different.
I want to thank you for being on the show. For readers, feel free to go back and read Dr. Karen Doll’s episode, where we talked about a lot of these topics, in-depth about the workplace as well. I appreciate you being here.
Thank you so much. I love the work that you’re doing. Thank you for creating the platform and having all these super important conversations.
Thank you all for reading.
- Dr. Karen Doll
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About Dr. Karen Doll
Dr. Karen Doll is a Licensed Psychologist, Consultant, and 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.