Q&A with Sophia A. Nelson by Emily M. Dickens

September is Self-Care Awareness Month. To learn more about self-care and what it means for the workplace and public policy, I sat down for a Q&A with award-winning author and journalist Sophia A. Nelson. Her new book is titled Be the One You Need: 21 Life Lessons I Learned While Taking Care of Everyone but Me.

SHRM is working to see that employers are able to address employee mental health. This issue is urgent. Of the nearly 53 million U.S. adults with a mental illness, only 46 percent have received mental health services. HR professionals are part of the solution, overseeing mental health resources, connecting workers with support and educating people managers about supporting staff.

Together with SHRM, the Department of Labor launched the “Mental Health at Work: What Can I Do?” campaign during SHRM’s Workplace Policy Conference this year. SHRM also successfully advocated for the inclusion of workplace mental health provisions in the House spending bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education. And we published “Mental Health in America: A 2022 Workplace Report,” which contains some eye-opening facts for policymakers and employers.

Sophia’s recent work complements these efforts. Here are highlights from our conversation:

Emily: You're a frequent on-air commentator for several television news programs and for USA Today and other publications. You're an award-winning corporate trainer and global women's conference speaker. I know why you had to take a moment to figure out how to take care of you. You’ve got a lot going on, and I didn't even cover the fact that you are an attorney and a former congressional staff member, so you understand the politics of this. You are also a former investigative counsel to a House committee.

Sophia: I wanted to be someone who used my legal credentials to do something else. And that's kind of the first takeaway. Just because you get an MBA or a JD or an MPH or whatever it is does not mean you are locked into that field. What it means is that you can take your life experiences, you can take your professional experiences and your educational background, and you can tailor that to those things you are passionate about. And those things that help you make your way in the world and make your mark on the world in a way that helps bless other people.

I think the bigger question that I would like to really tackle is this issue of mental health and wellness. I love that SHRM is in the business of HR and helping people. HR is a big word, right? Because it's a huge umbrella that covers a lot of things. SHRM is onto something really good when you're spotlighting and talking about emotional wellness in the workplace. We want you to be a better human being. To me, that's how we should be framing this issue in the 21st century, because COVID changed everybody. And I opened my book with this. I say, if COVID hasn't changed you, you missed something. You missed the memo from God, you missed the memo from the universe to say, this is your life.

What is it that you want to leave on this earth? When you go, who is it that you want to impact? And I think that we need to start framing the way we work, the way we live, the way we play, the way we love around those questions.

Emily: HR professionals have such a vast requirement in the workplace, right? Trying to take care of others, trying to take care of the organization’s work, workers and workplace, and often maybe not taking as good a care of themselves. Especially post-COVID, when everyone else realized what we had been telling them, that HR was who you need by your side when you're working on these critical issues. Talk to me about protecting your peace and not feeling guilty about taking time to care for yourself.

Sophia: The first thing I want you all to take in is this. Every one of us has been on an airplane at some point. What is the first thing the stewardess says to you? Put your life vest on first, your oxygen mask on first. Why does she say that? Because if you lose consciousness trying to help your aging parent next to you or your spouse or your child, you can't help anybody. That's a good metaphor for what real self-care is. Self-care has gotten this rap that it just means going to the beach or taking a trip to the Bahamas. No, that's respite. That's relaxation. Self-care is the deep, meaningful work that starts when you ask yourself three very important questions.

The first question you need to ask yourself not once, not twice, but often is, what do I want? When is the last time you stopped and asked yourself, what do I want? What I want from my life. What do I want from my relationships? What do I want from my career? The second question is a deeper one. What do I need? Stop for a second. When is the last time you asked yourself what I need? What you want and what you need are two very different things. And then the last question is critical, and it gets to what SHRM is trying to do. It gets to why I wrote this fourth book—being the one you need. What does that even mean? Being the one you need means you understand how you’re doing. How do I feel? Am I tired all the time? Am I cranky and nasty to my job to my family? Am I exhausted? Am I always running hard? Am I out of shape? Do I not even take care of my body?

You have got to ask yourself, how am I feeling? That's when you get to your emotional state and your mental well-being. That is particularly hard for those of us in corporate culture. It's why I left big law firm life. What I saw in a big firm was burnout at a level that people's marriages were in trouble. People's health started to break down. And I didn't want to be that way. What I'm saying to you is selfcare is a a much bigger thing than I just took a week off. Self-care is doing the deep work of you getting out of your own way.

Of course, you have to come first. If you don't come first and you don't sleep and you don't rest and you don't eat and you are not happy, how are you going to be emotionally available for your children or for your spouse or for your aging family or for the workplace?

Emily: One of the things I talk a lot about are our networks. I think for some reason, our personal networks have just fallen by the wayside. I think we saw this in COVID. We saw this when people especially women, couldn't return to the workplace because they didn't have the support systems to take care of childcare or other dependent care issues. Talk to me about networking and creating this kind of resource where you've got others to lean on as you're trying to take care of you.

Sophia: My grandmother on my father's side had a sixth-grade education—smartest woman I'll ever know. And she used to say, baby, you better know your front row. One of the problems that we have right now in our culture is that everything's a transaction. But what I talk about at the outset of the book is we are all energy. Each of us gives off energy and we receive energy. Go where the love is in your life. The people you have around you who you love, who you take counsel from, who you laugh with, who you vacation with, who you can trust, who you can be authentically you. That is the most essential thing we have. It is everything that we have because at the end of the day, we're not going to take the degrees with us.

Emily: What is the one piece of solid advice you will give to someone who is struggling and just needs one ray of hope right now, something to get them to move in a direction, to start protecting their peace, to start paying attention to their mental health?

Sophia: It's really about reframing your thoughts. What I want you to hear right now is if you're going through hell right now, keep going. If you're going through something and you've lost somebody you love, or you've lost your job, or you feel like you're worthless, I want you to put that away because that's not true. You have got to reframe your thoughts because you only have two choices in this life—you either give into it or you overcome it.

We all talk from a place of knowing we've walked this. We're not just talking to you. We've lived it. We've lost things. And we've had to find a way forward. And that comes when you build up that good row of people and that emotional IQ that says it doesn't matter what I've been. There's better ahead if I want it to be.

Emily: Thank you, Sophia, for all that you do to bless other people. You are a friend to SHRM, and we will continue to seek your guidance as we work to address workplace mental health and policies that make it easier to seek and receive care.

The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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