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The surprising way office yoga helped this CEO raise his company's minimum wage

Mark Bertolini, chairman and CEO of Aetna.
David Orrell | CNBC
Mark Bertolini, chairman and CEO of Aetna.

Since stepping into his role as the CEO of Aetna in 2010, Mark Bertolini has introduced many changes to the healthcare company that have improved both workplace culture and communication.

One of those changes has been office yoga and meditation, which is a practice Bertolini picked up while recovering from a 2004 ski accident.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Bertolini details how yoga not only brought more collaboration to the office, but it also prompted him to increase minimum wage for his employees in 2015.

Yoga
Natalie Young | Getty Images

He explains how the company's yoga instructor came to him one day saying, "I'm hearing things about the way people feel in your organization, and you should feel bad about it. You should do something about it." In response, Bertolini tells the New York Times that he went to the company's HR department and asked them to pull up any information they had on his front line employees, including insights on how they live. To his surprise, he discovered that workers within his company were using Medicaid and food stamps and they were stressed about making ends meet.

At the time, Bertolini says French economist Thomas Piketty had just released his book "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," which focuses on wealth and income inequality. Bertolini gifted the book to everyone on his staff for Christmas and started to have conversations about what he could do to fix the inequality problem at his own company. As a result, he says he implemented a policy that increased pay for minimum wage workers from $12 to $16 an hour and he improved employee benefits.

"Here we are a Fortune 50 company and we're about to put these people into poverty, and I just didn't think it was fair," Bertolini told CNBC's "Squawk Box" during a 2015 interview about his minimum wage policy.

In addition to raising pay and improving benefits, Bertolini also agreed to invest in his minimum wage workers more in order to help them become more skilled employees.

"We're going to invest in them. We're going to give them all a chance. We're going to educate them [in] a new way, but we needed to engage them first," he told CNBC. "That population was too worried about whether or not they could put food on the table, whether or not they could afford health insurance."

Currently, Aetna offers its employees top-notch benefits that include free yoga classes, a healthy lifestyle program, 401(k) packages and tuition and student loan reimbursement programs. Now, with the company being acquired by CVS Health, Bertolini says he only hopes that Aetna's employee benefits will not be affected by the sale.

"When we were getting near signing the merger agreement, they wanted to change our benefits immediately," he explains to the New York Times. "I said, 'No. You can do whatever you want to the executives, everybody is going to do really well. But not the front line employees.'"

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