Aetna CEO Says What Saved Him from Suicide Can Make You a More Compassionate Leader

Elisa Boxer
12th June, 2018

You don’t need a business earning billions to make mindfulness part of your workplace. Here are three simple tools you can use right now.

Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini nearly died. Twice.

First, from a skiing accident. In 2004, he crashed into a tree, broke his neck in five places, then fell into an icy river that froze his spinal cord and prevented it from fatally rupturing.

He left the hospital on seven different narcotics, which did nothing for his constant, excruciating pain. In a neck brace and arm brace, he parked his car near a bridge abutment, preparing to smash into it and take his life.

At that moment, a police officer pulled up and asked if he was drunk.

“No,” Bertolini said. “But I’m really high.”

He told the story last month at a Asia Society event in New York City, focused on how meditation benefits business. After his near-suicide attempt, Bertolini turned to alternative healing methods like yoga and mindfulness, which he credits with saving his life.

“I found this incredible ability to find my way back to a new me,” Bertolini told Fast Companyeditor-in-chief Stephanie Mehta, the event’s moderator.

Following his own personal success, Bertolini had Aetna start offering mindfulness classes to employees. The company also began gathering scientific data to see how well it worked.

A 2012 study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology highlighted the results of Aetna’s research, showing mindfulness lowered not only stress levels, but also lowered heart rate and health care costs. Sleep quality went up, as did workplace productivity.

The company now has a Chief Mindfulness Officer who helps other businesses incorporate these programs.

You don’t have to be a business making billions to make mindfulness part of your workplace. All you need is a willingness to, as Bertolini put it, “open up the heart of the organization.”

Here are three ways to do that:

1. Label your experience.

Because of his spinal cord injury, Bertolini’s brain thinks his left arm is detached. That causes nonstop pain from his fingertips straight up to his ear.

But rather than trying to suppress or resist that pain, Bertolini names what he’s feeling, as if he were an objective observer. “I have pain. I am aware of my pain. I am not my pain,” he explained at the Asia Society event.

It’s a form of mindfulness called labeling, and it brings you fully into the present moment. When you find yourself ruminating on the past, or worrying about the future, gently catch yourself and label only what you’re experiencing in the here and now, as if you were looking in from the outside.

Whether it’s labeling physical stress or emotional stress, acknowledging what you’re feeling as if you were an objective observer helps you focus on the task at hand.

“I had to learn to lose attachment to ideas and thoughts and expectations in the future and things that happened in the past, because I was going to be in incredible pain if I didn’t,” Bertolini said.

2. Put compassion to work.

Bertolini says as a leader, he wants to leave a legacy of compassion. It’s “a huge shift from where I was before, as the golden-haired boy with the Cornell degree and a brilliant mind and the world by the rear,” he said at the Asia Society event.

Mindfulness is, at its core, compassion for yourself and others.

Bertolini told the story of an employee who came to him asking if she could donate paid time off (PTO) to a co-worker who had a sick child, but had used all her time off.

Aetna’s PTO bank was born.

Whether it’s handwritten thank you notes to clients, publicly recognizing your employees, or developing a PTO bank, if you look for ways to demonstrate compassion, you’re making a more mindful workplace.

3. Take it home.

Since home stress spills over into the workplace and vice versa, Bertolini encourages employees to share mindfulness techniques with their families.

He’s a big fan of Loving Kindness meditation, which I’ve written about in detail. It involves sending well wishes to yourself, to loved ones, and eventually to people with whom you’re having difficulty. It’s a great tool to teach your kids.

You can also try “two minutes, no agenda,” which is a favorite strategy of Google’s mindfulness guru. Simply sit with a family member for two minutes, maintaining a focus on being, rather than doing.

Bertolini also uses and encourages mindful breathing. The easiest way to do this is to pour your awareness into the physical sensation of your breath rising and falling.

Try it for just three breaths. When you focus on the sensation of breath coming in and going out, you bring yourself out of your racing mind, and back into the now, where you can be your most authentic, productive, and present self.

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