Whatever else we expect of our big deal company leaders, we don’t expect to be privy to the history of their darkest days. But Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini, speaking at an Asia Society event on the topic of Buddhism and Business, was candid about a day several years ago when he contemplated suicide.
“I was on the verge of taking my life,” the insurance executive said. “I was sitting on the side of the freeway in my car, with the engine running, ready to run into a bridge abutment” when a police officer drove up.
Bertolini had already walked the audience through the events that had led him to that point. In 2004, he was in a brutal skiing accident, one that sent him into a tree before he plunged 60 feet into a ravine. He landed in water that was, fortunately, cold enough to freeze his battered spinal cord, according to the surgeons who handled his case. That icy water is the reason he’s alive, and able to walk. However, the accident “ripped my nerve roots out of my spinal cord” in his left arm arm, as he once so delicately put it, and his neck was broken in five spots. When he woke up in the hospital after a week in a coma, he had “incredible” neuropathic pain.
Eventually Bertolini was discharged and sent home with pain medications—seven types, including fentanyl, vicodin, and oxycodone, which he was prescribed to take daily. The pills did next to nothing for the pain he was in, except make him more aware of it. From his perspective, he said, his quality of life had been destroyed. Which brings us to that bridge.
Bertolini recounted his conversation with the police officer who approached him as he sat behind the wheel of his car, a brace on his neck and arm.
“He’s like, ‘What are you doing?’” Bertolini recalls.
“I’m thinking about driving my car into that bridge,” the executive responded.
“Have you been drinking?”
“No, but I’m really high.”
Bertolini’s license and keys were confiscated, and the executive was driven home.
It was shortly after that incident that a friend encouraged Bertolini to try craniosacral therapy (CST), a form of alternative medicine that’s often derided as pseudoscientific. Bertolini was skeptical. With CST, a practitioner uses extremely subtle hands-on manipulation to “release restrictions in the craniosacral system,” according to its founder’s institution, and thus juice the central nervous system. For Bertolini, it worked: “After four treatments, I started to feel better, and within six months, I was off of all drugs,” he told the crowd.
Through craniosacral therapy—or more accurately through his craniosacral therapist, Mari, whom he later married—he was introduced to yoga. Through yoga, he found meditation, which hit home for him, intellectually and emotionally, more than the Catholicism he had once been profoundly committed to. Since then, as he tells it, his meditation practice has dramatically transformed the way he sees the world and his relationship to other people. It also has reshaped Aetna, the company.
This part of the story has, deservedly, made the media rounds. As Bertolini rose up through the ranks at Aetna, he also became an evangelist for mindfulness at work. As president, he suggested that the company start offering meditation and yoga classes. The firm eventually ran a double-blind study, with its own employees, on the stress-busting effects of both therapies.
Mari, Bertolini’s then-girlfriend, who was teaching mindfulness classes as part of the study, began updating him on what she was learning about his employees through anonymous diaries they were asked to keep. “Do you know why these employees have stress levels off the charts?” the CEO remembers her saying, lingering on the “why” to indicate she was looking at the source of their problems—or at least someone who could do something about them.
So Bertolini began reading journals she carried home, the modern-day equivalent of A Christmas Carol’s Ebenezer Scrooge dropping in on Bob Cratchit’s modest house. Like Scrooge, the company leader was floored; some of his employees were under tremendous financial stress, one employee was under so much strain he was contemplating suicide.
Gathering data about Aetna’s 50,000-plus employees, he learned that of the 5,700 of his lowest-paid people, who earned $12.50 per hour, 81% were women and the vast majority single parents. Some 20% of this group required food stamps to stay afloat, and 30% had children on Medicaid because they couldn’t afford the dependent coverage offered by their insurance-company employer.
He asked himself: “How can a successful Fortune 100 company have employees who are being treated like this?”
Three years ago, at the CEO’s insistence, Aetna announced it was taking its minimum pay to $16 per hour and eliminating healthcare costs for employee families living under 300% of the federal poverty level. But this leap forward, financially justified as a strategy to reduce company turnover and improve productivity, only occurred following some friction and a “parting of ways” with the then-head of human resources. Executives had first proposed raising pay by a mere 50 cents per hour.
“I wasn’t getting the compassion I needed from the team,” Bertolini says, in his blue suit, collarless shirt, beaded bracelets, and black skull ring. “I had changed as a result of my practice.” (Bertolini also was reportedly inspired by Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. )
Other executives, especially in Silicon Valley, had by this time begun to adopt mindfulness classes, too, and even some who hadn’t had raised their employees wages. Aetna also created the position of chief mindfulness officer, a first for a company of Aetna’s size.
No insurance against hypocrisy
David Gelles, a reporter for the New York Times and author of Mindful Work: How Mediation is Changing Business from the Inside Out (Mariner Books; 2015), was also a guest speaker at the Asia Society talk, which was moderated by Fast Company editor Stephanie Mehta. In 2015, Gelles wrote that Bertolini’s changes—he mentioned the introduction of free yoga classes and mindfulness training, but Aetna had also found a new zest for volunteer work in the community and had become a strong supporter of LGBT rights—were turning a once “stodgy insurance company into one of the most progressive actors in corporate America”
That may be a bitter pill for critics of the American health care system, who might argue that it’s impossible for the CEO of any major US health insurer to claim the moral high ground. Although Bertolini has been recognized for responding to pleas for better treatment from desperate clients, he was labelled a hypocrite when he pulled out of Obamacare exchanges in 2016, weakening the exchanges in what appeared to be political maneuvering connected to garden-variety, cutthroat capitalism. More recently, Aetna was called out for refusing to cover a type of minimally invasive brain surgery that could have been a life-changer for a teenager who can suffer multiple seizures in a week.
For the changes made to his internal operations, however, Bertolini elicited surprised cheers from the audience at the Asia Society. To Gelles, who also has a meditation practice, the forward-thinking policies were the natural result of “internalizing the lessons of the practice.”
“Once you have introduced mindfulness into your company, that does not absolve you of all your sins, unfortunately,” he also said, referring to Silicon Valley companies where mindfulness and other forms of emotional intelligence training is now on trend, but problems of sexism and discrimination persist. But if you can get past the superficial, Gelles believes, the result of mindfulness training and meditation at work can be a fundamental shift.