New Era’s customer service administrator Sarah Morris, left, and Morgan Kissel, a customer relations analyst, play foosball while at work. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

To be sure, a heart attack will devastate an individual and a family.

It also can cost an employer dearly.

Workers compensation, a shift in health insurance rates – and most importantly, at least a temporary loss of a valued employee – can push related costs into six figures.

New Era Cap decided a decade ago that building a robust corporate wellness program would be a good way to minimize such costs.

It has since created a juggernaut that includes standing desks, a recreation area, and a fitness center that costs employees $10 a month to use. Also part of the mix: on-site yoga and massage, purified water stations, and a breast milk delivery service for new moms, as well as regular programs to boost physical, mental and financial health.

"It's not a fluff program," said Tracey Miller, New Era senior manager for benefits and employee well-being. "It's not keeping people busy. People are truly making lifestyle changes."

Not every company embraces such an approach, particularly those driven by a bottom-line mentality where success is demanded quickly and return on investment must be easy to quantify.

From left: Tracey Miller, senior manager of benefits and employee well-being at New Era, Carly Kennedy, a health management specialist with Lawley Insurance, and Victoria Davis, manager of worksite and community well-being at the Mental Health Association of Erie County. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

"We know wellness programs work but the payoff is long-term," Univera Healthcare spokesman Peter Kates said. It also can be hard to calculate savings on a health crisis that never came.

Here's what is known: U.S. wellness programs take place in a country that spends far more on health care than any other – and where the vast majority of chronic conditions can be prevented, halted or delayed. The average annual cost of medical treatment for an American with a chronic condition runs $5,300; for prevention, $116.

One of every $5 is spent to treat those with cardiovascular disease alone.

For the workplace wellness doubters, here's what Miller can say. New Era started small, and inexpensively, with its program. It nurtured it with more human and financial capital as it grew. And in an ever costlier health care climate, the effort helped keep health insurance premiums flat for the last three years. Productivity improved. Employee turnover dropped.

"The fact that our premiums aren't rising helps keep our employees engaged and further committed to these programs," Miller said, "because it's affecting their bottom line, too."

[RELATED STORY: New program aims to boost mental health in the WNY workplace]

New Era and about 70 other companies will come together on Thursday in Buffalo to share some of their workplace wellness success strategies. Meanwhile, Miller and others who help play a role in the health culture at the official cap-maker for Major League Baseball and the NFL shared the following tips for employers and employees looking to build more meaningful wellness in their workplaces.

START SOMEWHERE

It takes time to develop a solid workplace wellness program. "It is not an overnight success," said Jesse Ladoue, corporate relations director with the American Heart Association of Western New York, which will host next week's workplace wellness summit. "We tell companies that you really don't see a return, the value of the investment, until three to five years after it's going."

New Era started 10 years ago with a corporate version of the Wegmans "Eat Well, Live Well" program, which used paper charts to track eating and exercise, and brochures to offer health tips and recipes.

Miller was asked to run the wellness program shortly after she arrived eight years ago. She surveyed employees, asking about their needs and interests. She also turned for more help to the company's insurance carrier, BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York, which had started a wellness division.

New Era added a wellness component to its health insurance plan. "We also took advantage of every free community resource we could," Miller said. "National Walk at Lunch Day doesn't cost anything. You just say, 'Hey, we're walking.'"

Five years ago, Miller started to collaborate with Carly Kennedy, wellness management specialist with Lawley Insurance, the broker that helps New Era get the most from the company's BlueCross BlueShield plan. This spurred more programs, more employee participation and a culture of wellness at company sites in Buffalo, Derby, New York, Chicago, Miami and Irvine, Calif., as well as retail boutiques in New York, New Orleans and Toronto.

Kennedy works with about 50 companies in the 50- to 1,000-employee range. She knows smaller companies also have started walking clubs, weight loss challenges and modest programs of their own.

"It takes commitment," Miller said. "I know it can be hard for employers to have a person who spends time on something like this, but once you start to see the rewards – employee enthusiasm in wellness – it becomes a fun team-building experience. It's a nice stress-reliever, a break from the paperwork and the deadlines and the things you have going on every day."

Employees will come around, said Racheal Irizarry-Sauer, senior legal counsel with New Era for the last five years. The 40-year-old mother of two has participated in several programs the company offers. She shed pounds during annual weight loss challenges, only to put much of it back on. "Last year was the year it all started to click," she said. She decided to take up running, too, and has since dropped 65 pounds. "My 6-year-old sees me running," she said, "and has expressed an interest in running himself."

*****

THE COST OF POOR HEALTH

The U.S. spends far more on treating chronic disease than preventing it. Most of these diseases can be avoided, lessened or put off through healthier individual choices.

Number of Americans who live with at least one chronic diseases: 117-plus million

Overall percentage of health costs for their care: 75%

Annual associated costs:

Per person for treatment: $5,300

Per person on prevention: $116

For all cardiovascular disease care: $193 billion (plus $126 billion in lost productivity)*

Diabetes: $176 billion (plus $63 billion)

Obesity-related: $147 billion

Smoking: $133 billion (plus $156 billion)

Arthritis: $81 billion (plus $47 billion)

* Does not include nursing home care

Source: CDC National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion for recent years that vary.

*****

SET GOALS

Surveys and wellness committees can help lay the groundwork for successful wellness plans. "This isn't a task one person should ever try to take on themselves," Miller said. Committees should meet monthly, she said, even if nothing is on the horizon, and lay out plans each fall for the following calendar year. "That's kept us on track," Miller said.

Momentum continued when the company sought out "wellness champions" at each of its work sites, immersed them in the company's wellness offerings and urged them to sign up fellow employees for programs and activities. "They don't get extra points or gift cards," Miller said. "They do it because it's fun."

The wellness team coordinates email blasts about various activities, as well as video spots for in-house TVs. A "street team" leaves flyers at coffee machines and on employee desks. "We want to get people excited," Miller said. "We want a lot of people to participate. Sometimes it takes several reminders to get people involved."

A TV screen displays wellness activities near the entrance of New Era Cap. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

LEADERS MUST LEAD

New Era executives support wellness-related activities. Miller recalls the chief financial officer setting the tone eight years ago by leading the first New Era Walk at Lunch Day. Miller used MapQuest to make handouts with a 2-mile route. "Slow and steady, these were the kinds of things we would do," she said.

"It was exciting for employees to see leadership participating. They don't necessarily have a lot of face time with people like that, so to see them in a more casual environment was fun. The executives loved it because we weren't in our stressful environment. Things kind of grew from that."

EMPLOYEES COME FIRST

New Era has a stated goal that it wants to help workers "become the best version of themselves in work and life … not just to save money but to help employees truly thrive."

"We talk a lot about work-life balance," Miller said, "and this is our way of bringing some of the things from your life outside in, and trying to intermingle them throughout the day. Instead of sitting at a desk or a sewing machine and doing the same thing, take a break, get some of the fresh fruit we offer. We have a full-service cafeteria with healthy food options. We have vending machines with healthy options. We have a fitness center open the whole day. We have a personal trainer on staff."

Interactive graphic designer Jonathan DiRozario stands some of the time while working at a workstation that raises and lowers at New Era Cap. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Peter Bordonaro, corporate counsel with the company, has seen the approach boost productivity, worker confidence and morale.

"That sense of community is helpful," said Bordonaro, 34, a married father of two. When you're a busy parent "it's easy to cut something out, and the first thing you cut out is you," he said. "It's no secret that, on my own, I wasn't really doing it. It's about giving you tools and making something that isn't necessarily the number one most fun thing you can think of more accessible and manageable."

New Era also has to address different needs of its 850-member staff scattered across several communities. Burmese and Vietnamese are the main languages spoken in the Derby manufacturing site, home to about 225 employees. Translators help spread the wellness message and tailor culturally appropriate programs.

"Some don't want to participate in a weight loss challenge," Miller said. "It's actually offensive to them. Those are some of the things we've learned over the years. They might skip that one and be interested in the next one we offer."

The New Era wellness culture encourages, but doesn't require, participation. "Somebody doesn't have to be all-in right away," Irizarry-Sauer said. "For me, it was starting with the weight loss challenge. I kept seeing results and I kept going from there and it's built into something it wasn't a year ago. It's also very sustainable, which is important given I'm a full-time working wife and mom."

What she's learned at work has rubbed off at home. Her husband, Jason, and sons, Tristan, 6, and Emmett, 3½, have become regulars at the finish line of her races, including the Shamrock Run two weeks ago. The family nutrition dynamic also has improved.

"I wanted to set a healthy example for my sons," Irizarry-Sauer said. "I wanted them to see me making better food choices and being more active. I want them to do the same as they grow up."

THINK PROGRESSIVELY

New Era began to take bolder steps with its wellness program in 2013, adding pieces and creating the New Era LIFE wellness brand. They continued weight loss challenges early in the year, added on-site health screenings in the spring, a sun safety and hydration program in summer, an autumn walking program and a weight maintenance challenge during the late-year holidays.

Miller described the spring the barometric screenings as a "very comprehensive" 36-panel blood test that measures kidney, liver and heart function, blood sugar, good and bad cholesterol, and lots more. Several workers have said the confidential testing caught budding health issues.

"Those people never would have known otherwise," Miller said, "and we're grateful, because some of these things are pretty silent, and they were able to get ahead of it."

Carly Kennedy, left, a health management specialist with Lawley Insurance, left, and Tracey Miller, senior manager of benefits and employee well-being at New Era. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Putting a brand on the wellness program also helped, Kennedy said. New Era LIFE logos appear on related emails, and company water bottles, sunscreen, towels and bags. During cold and flu season, small bottles of sanitizer also bear the brand name.

This year, employees also have been encouraged to get their own Virgin Pulse app, which measures eating and physical activity online or on a Smartphone. Those who meet goals can win gift cards for sunglasses, kitchen accessories and more.

WORK HOLISTICALLY

"New Era also sees wellness as more than exercise and healthy eating," Kennedy said. "They really look at the whole person and the different dimensions of wellness. That includes financial and mental health, and stress management."

New Era has hosted "lunch and learn" programs about retirement planning and how to buy a house,  better sleep and stress reduction. It gives flex time for volunteer efforts and tuition reimbursement for employees who want to build on their education – and makes ergonomic work stations a priority.

"We spend a good majority of our lives in these buildings, so we have focused on work stations," Miller said. "By the end of next year, all employees will have stand-up desks. Forty percent of the headquarters building already does." It adds an expense, she said, but sitting for eight hours can lead to back problems and absenteeism. "We want people up and moving around, engaging with each other, not just with their head down on the desk."

New Era also is among companies in the region that includes a strong mental health component under its wellness umbrella.

"It's important for managers to recognize signs and symptoms" of physical and mental illness, Kennedy said, "and know how to get employees help."

As other companies – and workers – worry about changes on the national health care landscape, Miller gives this advice to employees in her company: "Keep doing what you're doing. Participate in our programs and do what you can to stay healthy. We're on the right path."

HEAR FROM THE EXPERTS

Jesse Ladoue is corporate relations director with the Buffalo Niagara American Heart Association.

More than 70 companies will attend the first Buffalo Niagara Corporate Wellness Summit next week at the Marriott Buffalo HarborCenter. The event is sold out but The Buffalo News will livestream the summit panel discussion on effective workplace
wellness. Here are the details:
When: 10:30 to 11:15 a.m. Thursday, March 23
Take a look: Watch the livestream on The Buffalo News’ Facebook page; Refresh Editor Scott Scanlon will tweet highlights at @BNrefresh
Participants: Reps from New Era Cap, Seneca Gaming Corp., ConServ, Tops Markets and Sumitomo Rubber Industries
Host: American Heart Association of WNY

WORKPLACE WELLNESS RESOURCES FROM THE BUFFALO & ERIE COUNTY LIBRARIES

"Deskbound: Standing up to a sitting world," Kelly Starrett

"Eat Move Sleep: How small choices lead to big changes," Tom Rath

"Finding Life's Secret Sauce: How to fit good food, fitness, and fun into your crazy, busy schedule," Melinda Hinson Neely

"Living Smart: Five essential skills to change your health habits forever,"- Joshua C. Klapow

"Mindful Work: How meditation is changing business from the inside out," David Gelles

"No Sweat: How the simple science of motivation can bring you a lifetime of fitness," Michelle Segar

email: refresh@buffnews.com

Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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