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Mindfulness, Meditation, Wellness and Their Connection to Corporate America's Bottom Line

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On Tuesday I'll be guest-hosting CNBC's Squawk Box, a program that bills itself as the show that "brings Wall Street to Main Street." As well as discussing Cyprus and a possible euro-crisis, we are going to discuss the growing trend in corporate America of taking steps -- meditation, yoga, mindfulness trainings -- to reduce stress and improve health and creativity.

One of my guests will be Mark Bertolini, CEO of the third-largest health insurer in the country with 30,000 employees insuring 17 million people. In 2010, Aetna partnered with Duke University's School of Medicine and found that regular yoga substantially decreased stress levels and health care costs. Following this, Bertolini made yoga available to all Aetna employees nationwide and has a much bigger mission: to make sure there is research available to facilitate private as well as state and federal coverage of yoga and mind-body therapies.

Even a quick look at what's happening in the American workplace shows that it's a seriously split-screen world. On the one hand, there's the stressful world of quarterly earnings reports, beating growth expectations, hard-charging CEOs, and focusing on the bottom line -- the world that is the usual focus of CNBC and Squawk Box. On the other hand, there's the world populated by the growing awareness of the costs of stress, not just in the health and well-being of business leaders and employees, but on the bottom line as well.

There is a growing body of scientific evidence that shows that these two worlds are, in fact, very much aligned -- or at least that they can, and should, be. And that when we treat them as separate, there is a heavy price to pay -- both for individuals and companies. The former in terms of health and happiness, and the latter in terms of dollars and cents. So yes, I do want to talk about maximizing profits and beating expectations -- by emphasizing the notion that what's good for us as individuals is also good for corporate America's bottom line. To do that, I'll be featuring guests who have had great success at bringing these two worlds together and putting what at first might seem like abstract or esoteric concepts to very productive use in the workplace.

When we separate these two worlds, the costs come in two forms. First, there are the direct costs due to stress and its associated medical conditions, and, second, there's the cost of lost creativity and diminished performance and productivity.

According to the World Health Organization, the cost of stress to American businesses is as high as $300 billion. And unless we change course, this will only get worse. Over the last 30 years, self-reported levels of stress have increased 18 percent for women and 25 percent for men.

This has huge consequences, of course, because of the role stress plays in a wide array of illnesses. Like high blood pressure, which afflicts nearly 70 million, and which costs $130 billion a year to treat. Or diabetes, which 25 million Americans have.

The CDC estimates that 75 percent of all health care spending is on chronic illnesses like these that can be prevented. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, two-thirds of visits to the doctor's office are for stress-related conditions. As a panelist on health care at the World Economic Forum put it this year, what we have right now isn't health care but "sickcare." And sickcare is a lot more expensive than real health care. Especially for businesses.

As business professors Michael Porter, Elizabeth Teisberg, and Scott Wallace wrote in the HBS Working Knowledge, studies show that U.S. employers spend 200 to 300 percent more for the indirect costs of health care -- in the form of absenteeism, sick days, and lower productivity -- than they do on actual health care payments. Their recommendation: that companies "mount an aggressive approach to wellness, prevention, screening and active management of chronic conditions."

Though awareness is growing, there are still too many companies that don't yet realize the benefits of a focus on wellness. "The lack of attention to employee needs helps explain why the United States spends more on health care than other countries but gets worse outcomes," wrote Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. "We have no mandatory vacation or sick day requirements, and we do have chronic layoffs, overwork, and stress. Working in many organizations is simply hazardous to your health." And thus to the health of your company as well. "I hope businesses will wake up to the fact that if they don't do well by their employees, chances are they're not doing well, period," Pfeffer said.

One company that did wake up was Safeway, whose experience is described in the recent documentary Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare. CEO Steve Burd recounts that in 2005 Safeway's health care bill hit $1 billion and was going up by $100 million a year. "What we discovered was that 70 percent of health care costs are driven by people's behaviors," he says. "Now as a business guy, I thought if we could influence behavior of our 200,000-person workforce, we could have a material effect on health care costs."

And so they did -- in the form of incentives for employees to lose weight, control their blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It was a huge success. "You allow and encourage your employees to become healthier, they become more productive, your company becomes more competitive," Burd says. "I can't think of a single negative in doing this." He concludes: "Making money and doing good in the world are not mutually exclusive."

One of the best -- and cheapest -- ways to become healthier and happier is through mindfulness exercises like meditation. Mark Williams is a professor of clinical psychology at Oxford, an expert in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, and the co-author of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World. According to Williams, after nine weeks of training, participants in a mindfulness program had "an increased sense of purpose and had fewer feelings of isolation and alienation, along with decreased symptoms of illness as diverse as headaches, chest pain, congestion and weakness."

In fact, the health effects of meditation can be even more dramatic -- a matter of life and death. Williams points to a National Institutes of Health study that showed a 23 percent decrease in mortality, a 30 percent decrease in death due to cardiovascular problems and a big decrease in cancer mortality as well. "This effect is equivalent to discovering an entirely new class of drugs (but without the inevitable side effects)," they write.

The effects of stress reduction techniques are equally dramatic on our productivity, creativity, energy and performance. And that's because these tools change the way we think so dramatically that they can be measured biologically. Dr. Richard Davidson is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin and has used MRI machines to study the brain activity of Tibetan monks. As Fortune's Oliver Ryan reports, "The brain functioning of serious meditators is 'profoundly different' from that of non-meditators -- in ways that suggest an elevated capacity to concentrate and to manage emotions. [Davidson] calls meditation a 'kind of mental training.'"

This can make an equally profound difference in our work lives. As Tony Schwartz, author and CEO of the Energy Project writes, it's not about the quantity of time we put into a task, but the quality:

It's not just the number of hours we sit at a desk in that determines the value we generate. It's the energy we bring to the hours we work. Human beings are designed to pulse rhythmically between spending and renewing energy. That's how we operate at our best. Maintaining a steady reservoir of energy -- physically, mentally, emotionally and even spiritually -- requires refueling it intermittently.

In short, happiness and productivity are not only related, they're practically indistinguishable. According to the iOpener Institute, in a company with 1,000 employees, increasing happiness in the workplace:

  • Reduces the cost of employee turnover by 46 percent.
  • Reduces the cost of sick leave by 19 percent.
  • Increases performance and productivity by 12 percent.

And the happiest employees, compared with their less happy colleagues, spend 40 percent more time focused on tasks and feel energized 65 percent more of the time.

Happier employees also take six fewer sick days a year, and remain in their jobs twice as long.

That last one is another way of saying that mindfulness is an antidote to burnout, which often leads to companies losing their most talented employees. Marie Asberg, professor at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm describes burnout as an "exhaustion funnel," which we slip down as we give up things not conventionally deemed "important." As Mark Williams and Danny Penman note in Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World:

Notice that very often, the very first things we give up are those that nourish us the most but seem 'optional.' The result is that we are increasingly left with only work or other stressors that often deplete our resources, and nothing to replenish or nourish us -- and exhaustion is the result.

One occupation known for burnout is physicians. Studies show that anywhere from a third to half of them suffer from it. But a 2009 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that doctors taking part in mindfulness exercises were less burned out. Even more dramatic was the fact that many of the improvements continued even after the year-long study concluded.

This is why more and more companies are realizing that their employees' health is one of the most important predictors of the company's health. Along with sales reports, market share and revenue levels, in those all-important Wall Street conference calls business analysts should be quizzing CEOs about their employees' stress levels: "Yeah, I see your net profit numbers, but how burnt out are your employees?"

One company that "gets it," and has since its inception, is Google. One of the most popular classes it offers employees is known as S.I.Y., short for "Search Inside Yourself." It was started by Chade-Meng Tan, engineer, Google employee number 107, and the author of Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace). The course has three parts: attention training, self-knowledge, and building useful mental habits. "I'm definitely much more resilient as a leader," Richard Fernandez, a director of executive development who took Tan's course, told the New York Times. "It's almost an emotional and mental bank account. I've now got much more of a buffer there."

But the trend goes way beyond Silicon Valley and companies like Google. Janice Marturano founded the Institute for Mindful Leadership after she left General Mills, where she set up a popular mindfulness program -- and a meditation room in every building of their campus. "It's about training our minds to be more focused, to see with clarity, to have spaciousness for creativity and to feel connected," she told the Financial Times' David Gelles. According to the company's research, it worked: 80 percent of participants said they felt it had improved their ability to make better decisions.

Joining General Mills are one-quarter of all U.S. companies -- including Target, Apple, Nike, Procter & Gamble. And, I'm happy to say, The Huffington Post and AOL.

And while the benefits of mindfulness are important no matter where you are in the company org chart, it's especially vital for the hard-charging managers and leaders who tune into CNBC every morning. "The main business case for meditation is that if you're fully present on the job, you will be more effective as a leader," says William George, Harvard Business School professor, former CEO of Medtronic, and a guest on Tuesday's show. "You will make better decisions."

So although, at first glance, mindfulness and wellness might seem like "soft" topics for CNBC, in fact it's as much about the bottom line as Squawk Box's usual morning fare. There's nothing touchy-feely about increased profits. This is a tough economy, and it's going to be that way for a long time. Stress-reduction and mindfulness don't just make us happier and healthier, they're a proven competitive advantage for any business that wants one.

"There is no work-life balance," says Janice Marturano. "We have one life. What's most important is that you be awake for it."

Watch Arianna discuss this on HuffPost Live: