Mark Bertolini, CEO of insurance giant Aetna, sat down for a one-on-one at the World Economic Forum at Davos with Roy Sekoff, president of HuffPost Live, to talk about personal reinvention and how he wound up pushing yoga on his employees as a road to business improvement. Health is a big topic at this year's conference and 25 sessions are devoted to it.
It's his experiences, Bertolini says, that shifted his view. He started as an assembly worker at Ford in 1979 after flunking out of college twice. He went back again for a degree to get a better union job "or something," and ended up "meeting the right people and running into the right experiences."
Natural fixer and builder
A self-described fixer and builder (as opposed to someone who likes to keep the trains running on time) when calamity struck his family, his first response was: How do I fix this?
Bertolini's 16-year-old son was diagnosed with incurable cancer and Bertolini left his job for awhile, stayed at the hospital, slept in his son's room, and served as the CEO of his child's treatment because there was no other coordinating agent.
"You get locked and loaded," he says. "You focus."
That intimate relationship with the healthcare system taught Bertolini there is no system. "The patient really isn't a person. The patient is a diagnosis. The patient is that day's crisis," he said.
"That focus on disease rather than the individual doesn't create advocacy for the person or coordination of the care. My role became the coordinator of the care, the keeper of things done," he recalls, noting the healthcare "system" is also not wired to deal with today's realities of people living longer and more complex lives.
CEO of his own treatment
Then experience came back for a repeat visit. Bertolini broke his neck and somehow managed to survive and without the usual paraplegic effects of the injuries he sustained.
But Bertolini knew if he didn't take matters into his own hands, he wouldn't make it. So he investigated to learn what form of expert he needed to see to handle each specific matter. And today he is a CEO, advocate for a reformed health program and yoga devotee.
How he got to yoga
"When I broke my neck, I wasn't going to be shooting hoops all the time. I wasn't going to be getting back on my motorcycles or skis. I had to search the system and find people who could give me input on what I could do next. They didn't have a book for how to treat spinal injury of a highly functioning former athlete. For some people, it's narcotics. For others, it's getting back to their life and exercising. That's how I got to yoga."
While at first he dismissed the practice as for girls, his first class convinced him otherwise because he could barely move afterward from the intensity. As he became more involved in the yoga community and started to attend retreats he decided to bring what had worked to center him to his employees.
Focus on reducing stress
People with stress, Aetna's research found, were spending $2,500 more per year for healthcare. In a voluntary yoga pilot, more than 800 employees participated and their heart rate variability and stress levels were studied.
Healthcare costs as a company were reduced 7.5%, and productivity went up 69 minutes per day. Bertolini received letters from grateful employees telling him their marriages had been saved, they had been ready to hurt themselves, they had lost 120 pounds.
Some 6,000 employees have now gone through Aetna's yoga program. People don't understand, Bertolini says, that yoga is not just poses. It's also how you treat people, mindfulness, meditation and awareness.
"There are still camps saying you're trying to commercialize a sacred thing. But I think we have to find a way to commercialize it because it's so powerful.
"Reinventing oneself is a lot like reinventing a business," he says.
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