One morning in 2015, I opened my Sunday New York Times to find a profile of Mark Bertolini, the CEO of healthcare giant Aetna, on the front page of the Business Section. The story was not a typical business story, but rather a vulnerable and personal portrait: the story of a corporate leader’s personal journey into meditation and his vision to bring the practice into his workplace.
Bertolini hired Andy Lee to do the real work of building a company culture where mindfulness is widely practiced. Lee’s own journey to becoming the first Chief Mindfulness Officer in America is compelling and inspiring for anyone interested in how mindfulness and compassion-based practices can improve our lives at work and beyond. —Schuyler Brown
How did you become Chief Mindfulness Officer at Aetna?
Actually, I first came across mindfulness in the workplace, when I had an executive coach in one of my early jobs who suggested that I look into meditation. At the time, I was early in my career, fresh out of school, knew a lot, and maybe wasn’t as patient as I might have been. I demonstrated the behaviors that would lead somebody to say, “Hmm, maybe this guy needs to slow down a little bit or develop his self-awareness.” I listened.
This was in 1997 or ‘98, and we didn’t really talk about mindfulness at that time. We talked about meditation. I read a book about meditation and began a practice, which was more dabbling than anything else. Then, around 2006, I had a very difficult time both personally and professionally. I was in a job that was not a good match for me, and I was in a personal relationship that wasn’t working out. It all kind of came to a head, these stressors from different parts of my life.
One day I just woke up and said, “I can’t do this anymore.” The job was really the trigger, and I thought, “I just can’t go to work today. I can’t do this another day.” That led to what I guess used to be called a nervous breakdown. Then when I gathered myself up from that, I looked back and I saw that I had really just been sleepwalking through my life. I had been assuming that everything was going to be okay, that I didn’t need to change anything, and I had basically just kind of numbed myself to the things that weren’t working.
I also recognized that mindfulness was the thing that could help me to make sure that would never happen again. I knew this because I did practice occasionally and I did feel the benefits of that practice, but I also knew that my personal practice was not up to the level of this challenge. I knew that a regular practice would help me to keep it together, and so that’s when I got really serious.
After several workshops, I did the training to become an MBSR teacher (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction). Then I became a teacher for the Potential Project, and I did other mindfulness work as well. While I was doing all that, I got the call from Aetna to see if I’d like to interview for this job. That’s it. I saw a unique opportunity to be committed full-time, to be paid by a company as a full-time employee to bring mindfulness into that organization. At Aetna, the role is a senior role. It’s not an instructional designer role, it’s an executive role. So I saw the potential in that.
Now I’m curious about Aetna as a company. It says a lot that they were ready to offer such a role at an executive level.
Mark Bertolini the person, as an individual, has a lot to do with it. He is 99% of the reason that mindfulness exists at Aetna. When I was brought in, mindfulness was labeled “a chairman’s initiative,” and he is the chairman. Now, having said that, over the years it has taken on a life of its own. Since then it’s become a groundswell as it has in many companies, but probably even more so here.
How do you build a mindfulness practice at a place as big as Aetna?
What I say about mindfulness is nobody really hates it. It’s never going to ruin your day, but having said that I do know that there are people at Aetna who don’t think it’s the most important thing or are concerned when others might take time out to practice, because they think they might be more productive doing something else. Those people exist. I think about it as continually widening the circle of people who understand and support mindfulness. I don’t think that’s ever going to end.
As Chief Mindfulness Officer, what do you spend your time doing? What are you leading or advocating for? What are you doing at that high level to make space for these practices?
At one level, you’ll be surprised at how mundane mindfulness can look. Goals, metrics, project plans—all that stuff exists in my world. We have a different kind of challenge, because we’ve got 40,000 employees, and everything we do has to bear that in mind. What that means is that we have to scale. The biggest program we offer is almost completely digital. It’s a mindfulness challenge that we offer in June, where each week of the month we launch a different set of mindfulness resources, which includes a video, a guided practice, and work tips, but it’s almost exclusively digital because that’s what it takes to reach a broad audience.
Now we do virtual classes as well. We do a 90-minute class twice a month, and fill it with 100 seats. We also have the long-form programs we offer through Emindful. They’ve been a partner of ours for many years. They have a 12-week mindfulness at work program. That’s the reason that we haven’t really created one because we have that one already. We’re really designing programs with the idea that we want to introduce as many people as possible to mindfulness. The other thing that I’ll add is that the other neat thing about this job is that Aetna employees represent only one group of our customers. The others are our customers, the people at corporations who buy Aetna health insurance, our members who are the end users, who are covered by our health insurance, and also, to some extent, the public. We want to bring mindfulness to all four of those stakeholders. Our employees, our customers, our members, and the public, and we’re in different stages with all of those folks. Clearly the biggest bucket there is our 22 million members.
Do you have any advice for internal champions at other companies?
I think sometimes people are concerned about whether something is too weird, whether a company is ready or not. I would encourage people to simply host a very simple event. Partner with HR and host a simple lunch-and-learn on mindfulness. The huge caveat there is you have to bring in someone who’s going to resonate with the audience and someone who knows what they’re talking about. It’s hugely important, because if you bring in the wrong person, then the whole thing is dead for two or three years. If you bring in the right person, you’ll be surprised by how many people show up to hear about mindfulness.
What have you personally learned about mindfulness—especially mindfulness at work—on this journey?
Well, recently I’ve learned that I have a way to go myself.
Isn’t that wonderful? Just when you think you’re about to just transcend everything. (Laughter)
It’s humbling, right? Personally, I’ve learned that I have to pause during the day. I have to do the things I tell other people to do—in terms of bringing it into their day—if I want to be at my best regardless of what happens.
Schuyler Brown is a futurist, facilitator, and teacher living in Brooklyn, New York. She is the founder of Sightful, a consultancy for conscious companies.
Join us May 9 in New York City for “Mindfulness in the C-Suite: When Wellness and Well-Being Matter,” where Andy Lee will be a featured panelist.
Join us August 17-19 for “Creating a Culture of Mindfulness at Work,” presented by the Garrison Institute in partnership with Mindful Leader.
Photo taken at a class at Aetna’s Mindfulness Center
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