New York Times

Business Day At Aetna, a C.E.O.’s Management by Mantra

On a recent wintry afternoon, Mark T. Bertolini, the 58-year-old chief executive of Aetna, the health insurer, was sitting in his Hartford office wearing a dark suit and a crisp, white, French-cuffed shirt. But instead of a necktie, he wore a shiny metal amulet engraved with the Sanskrit characters “sohum.”

Roughly translated, sohum means “I am that,” and repeating the phrase is used to help control breathing in meditation. Mr. Bertolini says the word also signifies a divine connection with the universe. (He has a similar design tattooed on his back.) In case there was any doubt, Mr. Bertolini, who runs one of America’s 100 largest companies by revenue, wants to make it clear he is a different sort of C.E.O.

In recent years, following a near-death experience, Mr. Bertolini set about overhauling his own health regimen, as well reshaping the culture of Aetna with a series of eyebrow-raising moves. He has offered free yoga and meditation classes to Aetna employees; more than 13,000 workers have participated. He began selling the same classes to the businesses that contract with Aetna for their health insurance. And in January, after reading “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the treatise on inequality by the French economist Thomas Piketty, Mr. Bertolini gave his lowest-paid employees a 33 percent raise.

Taken together, these moves have transformed a stodgy insurance company into one of the most progressive actors in corporate America. Most health insurance companies are thriving, largely because of increased enrollment. Aetna’s stock has increased threefold since Mr. Bertolini took over as chief executive in 2010, and recently hit a record high. It’s a decidedly groovy moment for the company, and Mr. Bertolini is reveling in his role as an idealistic, unconventional corporate chieftain.

“We program C.E.O.s to be certain kinds of people. We expect C.E.O.s to be on message all the time,” he said. “The grand experiment here has been how much of that do you really need to do?”

On a February day in Aetna’s Hartford headquarters, there were experiments all around. In a conference room downstairs, a meditation class had just concluded, and employees were returning to their desks. Nearby, preparations were underway for a new yoga class, starting in a week. And in his corner office — where a golden statue of the Hindu deity Ganesha was arranged next to an antique grandfather clock — Mr. Bertolini eagerly shared the most recent data from Aetna’s meditation and yoga programs.

More than one-quarter of the company’s work force of 50,000 has participated in at least one class, and those who have report, on average, a 28 percent reduction in their stress levels, a 20 percent improvement in sleep quality and a 19 percent reduction in pain. They also become more effective on the job, gaining an average of 62 minutes per week of productivity each, which Aetna estimates is worth $3,000 per employee per year. Demand for the programs continues to rise; every class is overbooked.

“We have this groundswell inside the company of people wanting to take the classes,” Mr. Bertolini said. “It’s been pretty magical.”

Aetna is at the vanguard of a movement that is quietly spreading through the business world. Companies like Google offer emotional intelligence courses for employees. General Mills has a meditation room in every building on its corporate campus. And even buttoned-up Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs and BlackRock are teaching meditation on the job.