There are a number of stories out there of individuals who have benefitted from the practice of mindfulness or mindful meditation, but is it something you can weave into a company culture?  Here is how Aetna’s Andy Lee is trying to do just that, step by step.

Aetna’s Mindful Path

Mark Bertolini, Chairman and CEO of Aetna (a diversified health care benefits company based in Hartford, Connecticut) has a remarkable story. Several years ago, he was in a severe skiing accident, which gave him a serious spinal cord injury that left him partially disabled. The injury, and his constant pain, prompted him to investigate alternative healing methods such as acupuncture, meditation and yoga. Mark benefited greatly from these methods and wanted to share these experiences with all employees at Aetna.

As a result, Aetna developed a mindfulness program, called Mindfulness at Work, in collaboration with a vendor called eMindful, which was piloted as part of a research study. Aetna published the results of their study in 2012, and the results are impressive.

Participants in Aetna’s mind-body stress reduction treatment groups (mindfulness and Viniyoga) showed significant improvements in perceived stress with 36 and 33 percent decreases in stress levels respectively, as compared to an 18 percent reduction for the control group as measured with the Perceived Stress Scale. Participants in the mind-body interventions also saw significant improvements in various heart rate measurements, suggesting that their bodies were better able to manage stress.

Aetna has now expanded the Mindfulness at Work program to all Aetna employees. Since expanding it:

  • Participants are regaining 62 minutes per week of productivity
  • They are seeing an approximate dollar return, in terms of productivity alone, of more than $3,000 (per person per year)

Overall, have more than 13,000 Aetna employees have participated in Aetna’s mindfulness-based programs. In 2014, participants who completed the pre- and post-program surveys reported a:

  • 28 percent reduction in perceived stress level
  • 20 percent improvement in overall sleep quality
  • 19 percent reduction in pain level

Aetna’s mindfulness program has been very successful, and they have the numbers prove it. But in order to evolve their program, Aetna’s leadership felt the need to integrate the practice of mindfulness more into their culture and to provide mindfulness as service to all of their nearly 45 million members (customers). That’s when Andy Lee, the company’s first Chief Mindfulness Officer, was hired.

Embedding Mindfulness into a Corporate Culture

Leigh Stringer: Andy, you’ve been at Aetna since February of 2016. Tells us how Aetna is integrating mindfulness into its culture. This seems like a daunting task!

Andy Lee: There are 3 major initiatives that we are focused on and are excited about:

1. We made June “mindfulness month.”

Both last year and this year, we offered a web-based program called the June Mindfulness Challenge. It is a collection of resources including short educational videos, downloadable work tips, recorded mindfulness practices, and links to articles related to mindfulness. Each week in June, a new set of resources becomes available on a new mindfulness theme. The goal is to keep people engaged over a period of four weeks. We don’t expect to have everybody meditating every day; we primarily want to reduce the misconceptions about mindfulness, and help people understand that this is a very practical technique, and a great use of their time. And if people are interested in going deeper, they have the resources to do that as well. We are plowing the field, if you will, so employees will give mindfulness practice a try whenever they are ready.

Last year, the four themes for each week in June were “foundation, focus, energy and resilience.” This June, we looked at our employee engagement survey and explored how mindfulness might add value. The health insurance business is incredibly complex, and our organization has to mirror that same complexity, which makes effective collaboration very important. There are a several ways that mindfulness can support our need to connect and collaborate more. We turned our focus to open communication and collaboration with four new mindfulness themes including “foundation, presence, trust and connection.”

2. We created a group of mindfulness advocates.

These people are employees, have had a mindfulness practice for several years and are interested in playing a champion role to bring mindfulness into their specific part of their organization. We put these people through a 10-week training program. Their job is to promote our various programs, do introductory presentations, and lead practices, and generally champion mindful work practices in their areas. They don’t teach classes (this requires a higher level of expertise). They are another way to make mindfulness local, social and get it into the culture or our organization.

3. We built a mindfulness center.

This center will be our “channel” or vehicle to offer programs to the entire organization. We have a space where we can bring teams, do live and virtual training and can run programs that are available to all employees. We will be expanding on our mindfulness themes and doing leadership development training out of this space. We worked closely with our Wellness group to create this center. This team is creating a set of site wellbeing standards including many elements, such as an onsite wellbeing coach, access to healthy food and space for mindfulness practice. The mix of elements provided will vary based on the site size and specific needs of each population.

LS: Tell us more about the physical attributes of the mindfulness center. Why did you design it the way you did?

aetna mindfulness center

Andy Lee: We located the room at our Hartford campus off a huge hallway on the main level. This hallway gets a lot of traffic at lunchtime. We purposely located the mindfulness center off this hallway and adjacent to the cafeteria to get the most foot traffic possible. The entrance of the space is recessed off the hallway by about twenty feet, which helps with noise. There are a number of specific features we designed into the room:

  • Orientation with a “front” of space for trainer or coach to sit
  • Typical AV, but also ability to record speakers for video classes
  • A variety of seating configurations based on the class being taught
  • Neutral-colored walls (light mint green) and cork floor tiles, and big pictures of nature scenes to provide a soothing environment
  • A variety of seating options to accommodate different preferences and body types:
    • Traditional chairs but with 4 legs with no wheels (it is important in meditation to have your feet firmly planted on the ground and sit with a straight back)
    • Chairs with and without arms
    • Foam block sofa seating against the wall
    • Alexia meditation seats (you are sitting on the floor in these, but it’s very supportive and straightens your back… especially helpful for those who want to sit on a cushion but can’t sit well in traditional meditation posture)
  • Cubbies where you can put your laptop or briefcase
  • Hooks for coats

Alexia chair from the company’s website

LS: Did you treat the acoustics in the room?

Andy Lee: Not really. We do notice the sounds from the hall, especially women’s shoes! But we don’t think this is a bad thing, because mindfulness is not about being in a secret hideaway, on a cliff overlooking the valley. When we really need mindfulness is when we’re in the office, where the bustle of work is all around us. It’s actually helpful to practice in a place where you are not disconnected from the workplace.

LS: Will you be measuring the effectiveness of the mindfulness center over time?

Andy Lee: Yes. When we set this room up, we talked to organizations that have created mindfulness spaces in the past. They are typically designed to be quiet space, and not that heavily used. To understand how our space is used, we put an ID swipe at the door. This is not a security measure, but rather, a way to track how the space is used over time and serve as an attendance record. That way, we don’t have to pass around sign-in sheets and we can collect people’s email. Once we have their email, we can follow up with a newsletter, start building a community and send them a satisfaction survey.

To be successful at the end of the day, we need to put a focus on how we use the space as well as its design. We need to get people in there, and we need to create good programming to draw them in. Once people have been in the space and used as part of a program, it will become less intimidating to use it later on their own (during ‘drop-in meditation’ periods).

LS: So I have to ask, what’s it like being a Chief Mindfulness Officer? I mean, it seems like a unique position. Are there others of you?

Andy Lee: There are others, but it doesn’t mean we all do the same thing. There are some wellness consulting firms that will have a Chief Mindfulness Officer. There are also some people who have the role in addition to their day job – like Chief Mindfulness Officer and VP of Northeast Operations. I’ve also seen Chief Happiness Officers, which to me seems to be quite a challenge. Getting people to be mindful is one thing. Getting everyone at the company to be happy is another issue altogether!

At Aetna, this is a full-time role, because I’m also involved in providing advice and support to our customers and helping to create mindfulness-related products for the market. I also teach mindfulness, having trained as a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) instructor, and having workedas a consultant for the Potential Project. My colleague Cheryl Jones is a teacher as well. This means that we can develop and create classes and we don’t have to do everything through vendors. This is a huge benefit.

For those who want to connect with Andy Lee or stalk him on social media, go here:

Related Articles to Learn More

At Aetna, a C.E.O.’s Management by Mantra, New York Times

Mindfulness Comes to Work, HR Executive Magazine

Aetna opens its first Mindfulness Center, Aetna website

Effective and Viable Mind-Body Stress Reduction in the Workplace

Photograph of Leigh StringerLeigh Stringer is a workplace strategy expert and researcher.  She works for EYP, an architecture and engineering firm and is the author of The Healthy Workplace: How to Improve the Well-Being of Your Employees—and Boost Your Company’s Bottom Line.