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Severe Ski Accident Spurs Aetna CEO to Bring Yoga to Work

Mauro Grigollo | E+ | Getty Images

Faced with a lifetime on painkillers and long-term disability following a near-death experience while skiing, Aetna's CEO embarked on a quest to improve his life through nontraditional remedies, including yoga. After making nearly a full recovery, he sought to apply similar techniques to the stressed-out workplace.

"When you read the literature, the literature says you need to be active at work, you need to have a purpose, and so I wanted to get back to work, but I couldn't do it on the seven different drugs, most of which were narcotics, that I was taking every day to try and control my pain," said Mark Bertolini, chairman and chief executive at Aetna, on CNBC Tuesday.

To heal his neuropathy, or nerve damage, he turned to alternative treatments, including acupuncture, yoga and naturopathy, a form of alternative medicine based on a belief in vitalism. This drug-less cocktail now enables him to live in a relatively pain-free world.

(Read More: How Some Companies Keep Employees Healthy)

Not 'Voodoo Medicine'

After realizing that such methods were not "voodoo medicine," he wondered what would happen if yoga and mindfulness were applied to the workforce.

To prove the effectiveness of these practices at work, Aetna collaborated with eMindful and the American Viniyoga Institute to craft a 12-week study, during which Aetna employees practiced alternative techniques to reduce stress as measured by cortisol levels and heart-rate variability.

"And of course, the rumor running around this place was, well, because Mark does yoga now we're all going to do yoga," Bertolini said.

Companies have a vested interest in lowering employees' stress, and as a result their bottom lines too.

"When employees are in the highest quintile of stress, their health care costs are $2,000 a year on average higher than the average employee," he said.

(Read More: Who's Hiring: Health Care, Yes; Wall Street, No)

Lower Stress, Higher Productivity

Stress also impacts their ability to fight and resist illness and lowers their productivity.

"We saw dramatic drops in stress after the program was over, and we saw a 69-minute gain in productivity of our employees over a year," he added.

The increased productivity along with reduced health-care costs and lowered employee stress yielded an 11-to-1 return on the program's investments, Bertolini said, which added up to a savings of about $3,000 per employees per year.

"The other part that we couldn't measure that I think is far more important is being present in the work environment, and by being present making better decisions for the organization and those decisions depending on where you are in the company take a longer time to have an impact, and we'll see that over time" he added.

Following the study's success, Aetna has opened up its stress-management programs to the insurance company's customers and their employees.

— Written by CNBC's Katie Little. Follow her on Twitter @Katie_Little_

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