How a love for yoga led Aetna's former CEO to raise the insurance giant's minimum wage to $16 an hour
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- Mark Bertolini is the former CEO of the health insurance company Aetna.
- He is remembered for the employee benefits he brought to Aetna, including raising the minimum wage for its lowest paid workers to $16 an hour.
- He said that it began when he saw the success of sharing his yoga and meditation habit with employees.
- This article is part of the Better Capitalism and C-Suite Insider series.
Former Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini considers raising the company's minimum wage to $16 an hour in 2015 one of the proudest moments in his career. In an interview with Business Insider in February, he admitted the decision was influenced by a surprising source: his yoga habit.
"It was actually the yoga and mindfulness that opened the whole door for the rest of it," he said.
In 2004, Bertolini got into a skiing accident that left him with multiple neck fractures and a permanently disabled left arm. He was alive, but had to deal with chronic pain. He eventually felt compelled to abandon opioid painkillers when they became a problem, and he instead found refuge in bodywork therapy, meditation, and yoga.
Bertolini ended up marrying his former craniosacral therapist, Mari Arnaud, and she introduced him to yoga in 2009. The executive's instructor, Gary Kraftsow, was the founder of the American Viniyoga Institute. He told Bertolini that all of Aetna's employees would benefit from the practice. As Bertolini wrote in his recent business memoir, "Mission-Driven Leadership," he was still skeptical, but kept it in the back of his mind. He was able to revisit the idea after becoming CEO the next year.
When Bertolini first introduced the idea of bringing yoga and mindfulness lessons to Aetna, he says his chief medical officer told him, "Mark, this is voodoo medicine. You're crazy; we all think you're crazy. Just because you do it doesn't mean everybody else has to do it." The only way he would budge is if there were proof it worked.
Aetna employed researchers from Duke Integrative Medicine and teachers from the American Viniyoga Institute, and provided employees with access to eMindful mindfulness lessons. A 12-week study they conducted concluded that employees who practiced yoga or mindfulness had 36% and 33% reductions in stress, respectively, as compared to an 18% reduction in the control group. It convinced Bertolini's leadership team that yoga classes were a valid perk.
Bertolini said the most interesting aspect of the study for him were highlights from the journals the experiment's participants kept. Some employees had severe financial difficulties as their main driver of stress. Bertolini said he was surprised to find that people Aetna employed couldn't make ends meet.
"It took a long time, way longer than I wanted to," Bertolini said, before he was able to get his team to raise Aetna's minimum wage to $16 an hour in 2015. But the move's success in increasing employee retention and productivity led to more perks, like a $2,000 annual student loan payment, better health benefits, and a $300 bonus for employees who logged 20 consecutive nights of seven hours of sleep while using a wearable device.
Bertolini said that it was "radical" to think "that talent was more scarce than capital" and that the company should do whatever it could to invest in the well-being of its workforce. He found that long-term investments in employees, which primarily affect productivity and retention, sometimes require taking a short-term hit if they're going to work. "The spreadsheet would've never worked on the minimum wage increase and the out-of-pocket costs," he said. "We'd never be able to make it work."
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