Shawna Oliver refuses to shy away from hard conversations. No matter how personal the topic of discussion gets, she wears her heart on her sleeve and leans into the moment.
“We had a child around 23 weeks who didn’t live,” Oliver says. “We ended up going through some pretty intensive fertility treatments.”
Four years later, Oliver finally had her first child. Despite how painful it was to suffer a miscarriage, she explains it inspired her to fight the good fight.
“It really influenced me in a lot of ways to really take on this . . . persona as a fighter [and] to say: I need to stand up for other people, other humans, other families, who I now represent in my population, and [those] who are struggling,” Oliver says.
Even in her HR career, Oliver stands up for what’s right. She serves as the assistant vice president and head of global benefits and wellness at Manulife, where she spearheads policies and initiatives that make life easier and more affordable for over 40,000 employees. She establishes the company’s benefits and wellness strategy across the US and Canada. Plus, she manages its benefits programs, old and new.
“I’m on this mission, if you will, to take an old-school approach to benefits and reimagine it,” Oliver says.
During the pandemic, when many employers were looking to add additional benefits for employees, Manulife assessed their benefits offerings to ensure the right structure was in place. Shawna Oliver challenged her team to wonder, “maybe we aren’t asking the right question. Maybe the right question isn’t what else can we offer, rather, our are benefits working the way we want them to?”
“[For instance,] we know [in healthcare] there’s systemic racism,” Oliver says. “We know that people who are overweight are treated differently. We know that members of the LGBTQ+ community are treated differently. So, if we know that, it’s our job to then look at our benefits programs and say” how do we make it better for our colleagues?”
For Oliver, the message was clear: Manulife needed to offer a more inclusive selection of mental health providers to its colleagues. In the US, she decided to forge a partnership with Hurdle, a mental health benefits firm that offers culturally intentional therapy and workshops to employees.
“I’ve heard from some of our Black colleagues, specifically, who have used Hurdle, that it’s the first time they’ve ever felt heard by a provider,” Oliver says. “And while that makes me sad . . . I’m so happy we finally found someone that they felt that they could talk to and feel heard.”
On top of that, Shawna Oliver spearheaded an agreement for its US offices with Included Health, an LGBTQ+ health care concierge.
“I’ve had them come in and talk to my colleagues about what it means to be nonbinary and how to talk to your kids about gender,” Oliver says.
Oliver also expanded maternity, adoption, and parental leave coverage to employees in Canada. She also introduced gender-affirmation coverage for transgender employees that undergo surgeries and treatments endorsed by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH).
Behind the scenes, Shawna Oliver steps up as an affiliative leader. Instead of making agendas and deadlines her top priorities, she lets her compassion for others guide her actions. While plenty of managers relate to employees on a personal level, she goes as far as becoming their emotional support system. If listening to them reflect on the highs and lows of their job (and life) can make them feel like they belong, she can empower them to thrive.
“I think leaning heavily into emotional intelligence and learning that everyone has a different learning style, everyone has a different communication style, [and that] people make decisions differently . . . being able to recognize that and hone in on that is really critical in helping to move some of these initiatives,” the AVP says.
Beyond the surface, Oliver also resonates with Manulife’s values as if they were her own. “One of our values is [to] share your humanity,” Oliver says. “I feel like for me, that’s kind of who I am, as evidenced by how we started our conversation.”
In the end, Oliver proves that healthcare and HR leaders can achieve more when they bring their full selves to work—especially if they lend themselves to a mission they can rally around.
“We need to care about what’s happening to them [colleagues],” Shawna Oliver says. “We need to make sure they are performing at their best. We need to make sure they feel embraced, because they’re our biggest asset for us as an employer.”
AccessHope is changing the way leading-edge cancer expertise is delivered. We’re helping progressive employers unlock access to NCI subspecialist knowledge and insights. Our experts remotely connect with treating oncologists to help them develop precise treatment plans for the best-possible outcomes, while patients stay close to home.