AstraZeneca VP HR: 'To succeed in HR, get comfortable being uncomfortable'

Gena Restivo sits down with HRD to reveal how she built a culture of care in a global pandemic

AstraZeneca VP HR: 'To succeed in HR, get comfortable being uncomfortable'

AstraZeneca fast became a household name throughout the COVID chaos. Pioneering a new vaccine and serving as a beacon of hope for millions, the global pharma company went from strength to strength. And, according to Gena Restivo, AstraZeneca’s VP of HR, their success was down to one simple thing – their people.

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“Our employees rallied behind one of the greatest health emergencies in recent history,” she says. “Our vaccine helped save over six million lives across roughly 185 countries, and was made available at no profit through the height of the crisis – something I’m incredibly proud of.”

But the external pressure on employees throughout the pandemic wasn’t easy to handle. As in all high-pressure situations, Restivo was keen to ensure that her people’s health was always a main priority. This begins and ends with their belief that the company is at its best when their people are too.

“Any approach to wellbeing within an organization needs to be multipronged, because humans are brilliantly unique,” says Restivo. “That’s our gift. We have to be able to support employees in different ways depending on who and where they are. We put a focus on creating an inclusive work environment where people feel safe and heard, because we believe this is intricately linked to their wellbeing. For many organizations navigating this pandemic, it really brought to life the incredible power of a strong employee culture - and what great engagement can achieve. If you take care of your people, they will take care of your business and your community. We've always believed that.”

Interconnected to this is AstraZeneca’s commitment to creating inclusive work environments where their employees can speak their minds. Restivo believes that when people feel like they can be themselves at work, collaboration and innovation thrives.

“Through the pandemic, there has been this catalyzing impact of people coming together, supporting each other, speaking their mind and trying new things – this connectedness is great for their mental health. In a recent engagement survey we ran, 90% of employees said they feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work – I’m still working on getting that 100%, but for now I’ll take 90%.”

This commitment to safeguarding mental health and promoting an open culture has worked wonders at the pharma giant. The stress and high workloads through the pandemic led to burnout for most employees – however, at AstraZeneca it was a top priority to manage this challenge with empathy and focus.

“We regularly emphasized how important it was for employees to disconnect & recharge so that they wouldn’t reach the point of burnout,” says Restivo. “That was really important to us. We’ve also really doubled down this year around prioritization and simplification. It’s all about helping employees navigate the increasingly busy world we’re in – helping them set boundaries between their personal and professional lives.”

The Great Resignation has been re-termed the Great Reset – a time in which employees are looking to realign their priorities. Employers wanting to get ahead need to be sensitive to the shift in worker mindset. No longer will people put up with unreasonable hours or unempathetic management teams. Issues such as social justice, commitment to sustainability and authentic DEI initiatives are taking precedent over higher wages – as such, employers need to dig deep and ensure their actions align with their promises, specifically around mental wellbeing.

“Organizations can help with prioritization, but as human beings we need to rediscover the discipline of human prioritization ourselves,” says Restivo. “We need to understand what it means to us personally, and be able to strike a better balance between our life and work commitment. Tackling burnout is different to different people, but starts with self-care practices.”

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And this is working for Restivo. According to recent figures, AstraZeneca enjoys a six percent resignation rate – way below the national average of 21%, according to Mercer - with employees being drawn to the sense of community at the company.

“We really want people to come to AstraZeneca not just for a job, we want them to come for a purpose. We also really want to make sure that our employees feel developed, feel appreciated, feel heard when they get here.”

But none of this is new for Restivo. Having dedicated her career to embedding her own compassionate set of values into the companies she works for, nowhere is this more clear than at AstraZeneca. You might be forgiven in believing that a large pharmaceutical company would be less concerned with employee wellbeing and more interested in ground-breaking science – but at AstraZeneca they manage to do both with perfect ease.

And, looking back on her career, how she wound up as VP of HR, Restivo thinks it’s all down to following her own curiosity. So, for any junior practitioners hoping to reach her own dizzying heights, Restivo preaches keeping your focus on what’s at hand.

“In order to really thrive as a leader, you need to get comfortable being uncomfortable. If you want to be a VP of HR, I’d say stop trying to be one. Just focus on doing great work, focus on being the best you can be, and the rest will naturally follow.”

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