On Tuesday I guest-hosted 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 discussed 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 was 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.
There is a growing body of scientific evidence showing 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.
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 a year. And unless we change course, this will only get worse.
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."
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."
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 burned 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, and a co-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.
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.
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.
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."
(Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)