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For this CEO, mindful management means yoga for employees

May 28, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
For Mark Bertolini, CEO of health insurer Aetna, a near-death experience led him to make big changes in his personal life and at the company. Living with pain from a skiing accident inspired him to take up yoga and meditation, which made him wonder if it could also help his employees. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to a story about a high-profile and unusual CEO, whose own philosophy and unique life experience has influenced the way things operate day to day inside the company.

Economics correspondent Paul Solman has the story, part of our ongoing reporting Making Sense, which airs every Thursday on the NewsHour.

PAUL SOLMAN: Aetna insurance, number 57 on the Fortune 500, surprised corporate America recently when it hiked its minimum wage to $16/hour. It was a quirky move by a quirky CEO, Mark Bertolini, motorcycle enthusiast, former hippie, and two-time college dropout, who aced the GMAT exam on a lark, which led to a Cornell MBA, and a career in health insurance.

This CEO manages by walking around, slowly and mindfully, actually practicing walking meditation, and attentively listening to his employees.

MARK BERTOLINI, CEO, Aetna: This income inequality issue was rattling around in my head. I mean, I came from a family that wasn’t — you know, we, sometimes didn’t have insurance. My dad worked half-time. My — you know, my mother was a part-time nurse.

And so I had been pushing the team on it, but I was getting this sort of — you know, we’re running a company, you know?

PAUL SOLMAN: Yes.

MARK BERTOLINI: This is a — we’re, you know, a capitalist enterprise. We’re a commercial enterprise.

PAUL SOLMAN: Did they know that you were a hippie in the…

MARK BERTOLINI: Oh, yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: … ’70s?

MARK BERTOLINI: Well, kind of. We’re not the first company to really make this kind of investment. I mean, Patagonia, there’s a book out about it, right? “Let My People Go Surfing,” right? And…

PAUL SOLMAN: Yes. A hippie company, yes.

MARK BERTOLINI: Well, it’s not being a hippie. It’s being a good person. I mean, you know, what have we forgotten about the ’70s that we all of a sudden as businesspeople come into the community and say, well, that was really cool back then, but now I’m an adult?

I actually showed people once, and when I — we were talking about change. I said to them, if you think change is bad, look at your high school picture. And I put mine up on the stage. And everyone went, oh, my God.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK BERTOLINI: They — they got a glimpse. I mean, I didn’t talk about all of it. I mean, you know, there are things that you don’t talk about in polite company. But…

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: So, aren’t they a little skeptical of you?

MARK BERTOLINI: I don’t think people are skeptical. I think people appreciate the authenticity, actually. I think people are looking for authentic leaders these days and being yourself. I mean, you know, I put this tie on for you today, by the way. So…

PAUL SOLMAN: I appreciate it.

MARK BERTOLINI: I don’t wear — I don’t wear ties to work. And I don’t shave.

PAUL SOLMAN: As his Twitter feed suggests, Bertolini, as CEO of a major health care company, isn’t exactly beloved of all his employees. But he answers them, as he answers unhappy customers.

MARK BERTOLINI: I’m not the most loved person on the planet. People assume they understand who I am by what I do.

PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, a near-death experience in 2004 led Bertolini to make big changes in his personal life and at the company.

MARK BERTOLINI: I broke my neck skiing. I detached the nerve root for my arm that connected it to my spinal cord. And so it’s sort of like the troubled sibling of the body. It doesn’t operate as well as it should.

PAUL SOLMAN: And almost died, right?

MARK BERTOLINI: They gave me last rites in the helicopter on the way to the — the hospital.

When I had that accident, I couldn’t engage in my physical activity the way I had before, and I engaged — started engaging in yoga as a physical practice, but very quickly found out there was something broader to it, and that it was actually helpful for my pain, and started to get into meditation, started to study the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita and a lot of the scriptures associated with yoga, the Yoga Sutras, and very quickly came to this conclusion that this had a huge impact on my ability to lead, but, more importantly, the ability to control my sympathetic nervous system, which had a direct tie to the pain in my arm.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, your arm would be hurting all the time?

MARK BERTOLINI: My arm hurts all the time now. It hurts right now. It never stops hurting.

But it’s the level of pain that is associated with it is dependent on how I manage my sympathetic nervous system. So, I came to work one day, and I said, you know what? I think we should do meditation and yoga at work. And everybody went, oh, you know, the eye roll, right? And it’s because the CEO does yoga and meditation, we have all got to do yoga and meditation.

WOMAN: Now bring your focus to the center of your chest, as you inhale, imagining breath comes from the center of your chest and expands outwards.

PAUL SOLMAN: So Bertolini ordered a study to see if meditation and yoga would dampen the stress levels of 239 employee volunteers.

MARK BERTOLINI: And we saw dramatic drops, 50 percent drops in cortisol levels and heart rate variability. We saw a $3,000 reduction in their health care costs through the next year. We saw 69 more minutes of productivity a month.

PAUL SOLMAN: And employee testimonials were revealing.

MARK BERTOLINI: “My marriage has been saved. My children were wild. I have engaged them in this practice. My household is much more quiet.”

We had a person who was going to kill themselves, and, you know, “I have decided not to do it.” People lost weight. I mean, it was just like, oh, my gosh. if, you know, if a program that costs us $190,000 to do could save just one life, wouldn’t that be worth it?

PAUL SOLMAN: By now, more than 13,000 employees out of a total of 49,000 have taken part. The most recent free 10-week yoga session at Aetna’s Hartford headquarters was oversubscribed within hours.

MAN: The intention is just to feel or sense the body to notice sensations.

PAUL SOLMAN: While online mindfulness classes have also proven popular.

MAN: Just practicing letting be.

PAUL SOLMAN: There are weight loss programs.

WOMAN: I have had these 10 extra pounds that I just can’t get rid of.

PAUL SOLMAN: There are health screenings. All hold the promise of paying off, for workers and company alike.

MARK BERTOLINI: The first year after we did the program, our health care costs actually dropped 7.5 percent as a company. And I have to think a part of our success since then, as a company, and how well we have done as an organization and that we’re growing, we have been growing now for three consecutive years, is part of that.

PAUL SOLMAN: Let’s see how the company does now that he’s taking it in a very nontraditional direction.

This is economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting from Boston, as mindfully as I can manage, for the PBS NewsHour.

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