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05 Jan 2024
by Dr Nick Taylor

Why Gen Z employees give me hope – Rosemary Sheehan

Rosemary Sheehan, CHRO of Mass General Brigham, discusses balancing leadership with parenthood, influencing fellow leaders and the monumental shifts being seen as a new generation enters the workforce

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How has the topic of mental health in your workplace evolved in recent years? 

The last three years have brought much more open conversation about mental health issues. 

Working in the healthcare sector, we often see that caregivers in general tend to care for others first and not for themselves. But attitudes are changing – people are coming to realise that to care for others, they first have to take care of themselves.

The Covid-19 pandemic really put a spotlight on mental health and has brought the topic to the forefront of all our minds. We’re just having many more open conversations about it now – it’s no longer something hidden. That’s not to say that everyone speaks of it openly, but a lot of people, including leaders, are starting to open up. 

As a CHRO, what topics are front and centre of your mind?

What makes the role of CHRO challenging is that you are the people leader, and people are complex. 

But when I think about people leadership I’m not just thinking of myself and my role as a CHRO, but about individual leaders of individual teams. They have a critical role to play because they are the direct connection to our people. 

Ultimately, you can’t separate leadership from the macro-environment. Every day, there is something in the news that will upset some people. There are major dilemma; there’s a crisis in a foreign country; there’s something happening locally. 

And we have people with all different perspectives and opinions. So we need to create space for all of those opinions and all of those perspectives. 

Our task is really to encourage our leaders to provide an environment where people can talk about what’s upset them in a safe way – conversations are really important. 

Research suggests young people have higher levels of mental illness. What are your thoughts on the mental health of your Gen Z employees? 

I wonder if perhaps younger people are just more open about it. I wonder how many people of our generation went home, buried things deep and had bigger issues because of it – perhaps had substance use issues to try to deal with the pain of what they were going through. 

I’m a mother and what I see is young people are much more willing to talk about mental health. They don’t see it as a failure. They see it as something that is just part of who they are. 

Our young people are actually evolving the organisation. It’s fascinating to see – they’re much more involved in our employee research groups, we see much higher adoption of the support we’re offering by young people. They’re also willing to speak out – when I was 23, I probably wouldn’t have.

I love that we are actually learning from them. While we’re trying to establish the right policies and create the right environment, we’re being pushed to do better because of our young people. 

How have you managed your own wellbeing and health with such high pressure work?

My focus on wellbeing has evolved a lot in recent years, especially when it comes to sleep. I was of the generation where many of us said sleep isn’t necessary – you can live on five hours of sleep and be very productive.

What I've come to realise, and what I talk about with my team as well as my kids, is that sleep is essential to wellbeing. It is the most important thing you do. I prioritise sleep, nutrition and exercise in a way I never used to. 

I try to model that behaviour and hopefully prevent other people going through the same probably unhealthy period that I did where I was living on very little sleep. I think that the ways to take care of ourselves don’t need to be complicated – it’s about prioritising those basic, important things.

So if someone is worrying about their deadlines, I say: “Let’s see what we can remove so that you don’t actually have to do that at night,” or, “what are the priorities that you’re working on? Let’s review those priorities and see which ones can be delayed.”

Ultimately you can’t do it all well. So you need to decide what are the things that need to be done, do those exceptionally well and be honest with people about why you can’t get to everything. That’s critical to the whole balance of work and life.

How can we empower our leaders to create a culture that prioritises wellbeing without overwhelming them? What’s the number one thing they need to be doing? 

It’s a really hard question. I don’t think we’ve done a great job of role modelling the right behaviour from the senior teams.

A big challenge for our leaders in healthcare is that they have large groups of different workers under their remit – people in different roles, different regions, some are working remotely. So it’s difficult for leaders to get to know all of the people who report to them. 

It’s key to tell people to start small so as not to overwhelm them. Focus on one or two small things, like really listening and checking in with your teams. Building trust is essential, and that’s not just the leader building trust with the employee, but creating teams where people trust one another. 

What do you see as the future of mental health in the workplace? 

I’m actually hopeful for the future. Just the fact that we’re here talking about this now – three years ago we probably wouldn’t have been. 

We have young people coming up through the ranks of leadership who look at things quite differently. I think mental health will become part of our integrated people programmes; the way leaders think and the way they lead will change. 

Our job is to continue to keep the focus on mental health, drive policy and tell stories that show mental health is central to everything.

For more interviews, subscribe to Unmind’s Lead From Within podcast.

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