Will capitalism complicate something as simple as following your breath? That’s a question Joe Pinsker poses in his article for The Atlantic, Corporations’ Newest Productivity Hack: Meditation. He interviews David Gelles, a New York Times business reporter who tracks the intersection of “mindfulness” and corporate America.

“Gelles first reported on the rise of corporate mindfulness programs in 2012 for The Financial Times, when he described a rare but promising initiative at General Mills. In the years since, similar programs have popped up at Ford, Google, Target, Adobe—and even Goldman Sachs and Davos. This adoption has been rapid, perhaps due to its potential to help the bottom line: Aetna estimates that since instituting its mindfulness program, it has saved about $2,000 per employee in healthcare costs, and gained about $3,000 per employee in productivity. Mindful employees, the thinking goes, are healthier and more focused.”

Gelles also authored a newly published book, Mindful Work, prompting the interview with Pinsker. The interview ranges from the earliest intersection of mediation and corporate America to current day trends and manifestations in the workplace. Gelles attributes the increasing adoption of mediation programs to three reasons: scientific research that quantifies the effects of mindfulness, mindfulness having become a secular pursuit, and the third:

“The third is, I think mindfulness is being accepted in the workplace today because we need it more than ever, it seems. We are so stressed. We are so bombarded with constant information overload. We are so addicted to our technology that the promise of a technique that allows us to come back to the present moment and stop obsessing about whatever it we just read in our Twitter stream or what we’re about to post on our Facebook page has a unique and enduring allure that is totally understandable. I mean, after a totally frenetic workday here at The Times, the opportunity to quiet down is totally lovely.”

Pinsker and Gelles go on to discuss examples of how these programs are being implemented at various companies.
Perhaps one of the most compelling examples can be seen in Gelles’ recent article, At Aetna, a C.E.O.’s Management by Mantra, in which he profiles Mark Bertolini and his near-death experience that led him to meditation. After a life-threatening skiing injury, Bertolini searched for an alternative to pharmaceuticals to manage his chronic pain. He turned to yoga and meditation. He credits this with helping him to regain his health, and in realizing these benefits, he thought, “If yoga and mindfulness had helped him, why shouldn’t they help his employees, and even Aetna’s millions of customers?” He began folding it into the company.

“When Mr. Bertolini reviewed Aetna’s financial performance for 2012, he noticed something surprising: Health care costs had fallen. For the year, paid medical claims per employee were down 7.3 percent. That amounted to about $9 million in savings. The next year, health care costs rose 5.7 percent, but have remained about 3 percent lower than they were before yoga and meditation were introduced at the company.

Mr. Bertolini doesn’t attribute all those cost savings to yoga and meditation alone. Other wellness initiatives, including a weight loss program and new health screenings, had also been ramping up during this period. But he says he believes they made an impact. “It was a culmination of a set of programs that led to a steady decrease in health care costs,” Mr. Bertolini said. “I wouldn’t say it’s all just yoga and mindfulness, but they helped.”

Gelles also links Bertolini’s experience with mindfulness to his recent decision to increase Aetna’s U.S. minimum wage to $16 an hour, from $12. He quotes the CEO as saying: “It’s made me question what I do and how I look at the world,” he said. “It’s made me consider my influence and how I treat people.”
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