Dr. Kanika Bell, a licensed clinical psychologist in Atlanta, is co-owner of ATL psychotherapy and consulting services, which is a mental health practice focusing on working with the assessment and therapeutic needs of communities of color. Her primary clinical and research areas concern African American women and their search for identity and psychological wellbeing. In this episode, Dr. Bell and Dr. Weaver discuss mental health in the workplace. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation.
Weaver: Every day on the news they’re talking about mental health, particularly mental health during the pandemic. Times have truly changed because before people didn’t even want to use the term mental health or psychological trauma but there’s a heightened sense of the importance of this topic and the need for workplaces, families, and individuals to address it.
Bell: Mental health has been an issue in the workplace in schools, in society for years. It is starting to get some of the centrality in terms of our discussions about overall health that it should have received this entire time.
Vanessa: What do you see is the impetus of that?
Bell: There were two things happening. We had the COVID pandemic, and it was more than just a virus that happened. It was a necessary and instant behavior change. It was also a trauma that we experienced collectively. When we talk about experiencing traumas, normally it is one person going through something or one group of people going through something, but we all faced that trauma together. We literally switched to having meetings on Zoom because we thought our breath was going to kill each other. There were families that did not see each other over holidays that had never spent that kind of time apart.
Then we had Civil Rights 2.0 happening in the middle of our collective trauma. As we’re dealing with the pandemic, we start to recognize the epidemic of racial trauma that had been existing in communities of colors simultaneously. We had time during the pandemic to stop and take some time out from it all.
Vanessa: Why do you have a practice that’s focused on addressing the needs of communities of color?
Bell: I am in Southwest Atlanta, which is a community of color. We see everybody, right. We are specifically there for people who have felt marginalized, distanced, or unable to access that kind of healthcare previous.
We specifically exist so those people have a place to go. There are needs that need to be addressed in certain communities that are outside of what’s our textbooks teaches us. We decided, at ATL, we would be a place for people to go where they felt heard, understood, and have people who were trained to work with them and their needs.
Vanessa: Can you share with us a couple of those needs and how they show up in the workplace?
Bell: There were South Fulton parents that wanted to keep kids out of school because the pandemic. North Fulton parents wanted to put their kids back in school with no mask. I have a client that went into a school building and received verbal harassment from her students and other teachers for wearing her mask. It was believed that wearing the mask was some sort of demonstration of a particular political ideology, which was not supported at her school. She was the only black woman also in the building and was feeling even further isolated.
Weaver: There were frontline employees going out into the community but African American men felt uncomfortable because of all of the racial unrest. They felt it was particularly critical that they wore t-shirts and hats that identified them as employees of their company. The organization had to really step back and think about it because the mask was all about their employees being safe, particularly since they were frontline, they never even thought about the other implications of a Black man going up into say another white person’s home with a mask on and the potential repercussions for him.
Data from Silver Cloud showed that working mothers were significantly impacted by the pandemic. They’re dealing with issues of stress and mental health challenges. We have all demographics of people who are trying to deal with issues of mental health and now they’re concerned about their children.
Bell: They are spending more time and in isolation, and they’re spending more time online. I felt like I was experiencing extreme anxiety. I am a college professor. My students are in the 16th grade. My daughter was in kindergarten. I did not know how to teach her. People assume that you would know how to teach. All my students are 22. They know how to read. I am teaching higher level concepts, and that was extremely anxiety producing for me.
Weaver: What should workplaces be doing to help parents who have this concern?
Bell: I was contacted by several businesses who wanted to know how to do this and how to show empathy. In the beginning of the pandemic, companies went into micromanaging of people’s time and measuring of their productivity. I advised them to not do that because their employees are already going through a challenging time. They’ve realized that’s not the healthiest way to address what has happened here. A lot of companies are realizing that they have to put some energy into reanalyzing their data around how their workers work. You don’t have to clock people or micromanage them. There are ways to incentivize, people so that they don’t feel abused especially when they’re already experiencing kind of a psychological trauma because of what’s happening in the macro system.
Weaver: Can you share with us a couple of examples of what these companies are doing?
Bell: Companies that reached out to me to do work with managers learned to ask people how they are doing. When someone is experiencing what’s happening with COVID-19, watching the death of George Floyd, and experiencing these other things that might be kind of traumatically impacting them don’t act like nothing is happening. Ask people how they are doing. Have some empathy and understand that you’re a human being.
Weaver: How do they train their managers to be more empathic?
Bell: The number of emails sometimes being sent can add to employers’ anxiety. If there are five things you want to say, collect those five things, and put it in one email instead of shooting off five. Also, how important are some of these meetings? Are they critical? Have check-in that can be an email or a newsletter versus an entire meeting where everybody must come and appear on camera. Another is, can we go to a four-day workweek so we can take care of some other things? Can this person change their schedule? Can they do seven to three? These are the kinds of things that were discussed so that the managers or the supervisors and can convey feelings of empathy to the people in their charge.
Weaver: We lost something like 6 million women out of the workforce in the last two years. There’s 6 million women and a third of them are not considering returning, that’s a major hit on family and workplace. Companies found that they could not demand that people come back and work full time in their workplaces because when they tried to do it people quit.
Dr. Bell: Some companies have lost their footing. We’re looking at the data and it shows there’s creative ways to make income. I don’t have any generation Z clients who have traditional jobs. They’re all well taken care of. They are asking “Why would I go back to work where I am not being honored and humanity is not being recognized?” I think that’s something we can celebrate.
Weaver: What’s one piece of advice that you would give an employer on how to help their employees deal with mental health stresses and traumas that they’re experiencing in the workplace?
Bell: Listen to and provide opportunities to really hear them. To allow them to speak because their lived experiences should help you inform your policies.