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Buffalo company takes charge when it comes to fitness in the workplace

Karl Siebert had five people on staff six years ago when he became director of wellness program operations for BlueCross BlueShield of WNY. Today he has 30 wellness coordinators, specialists and health coaches.

That doesn’t include two who left: Courtney Moskal, a registered dietitian, and Marie Pidanick, a personal trainer, who both took new jobs last spring at Walsh Duffield Cos.

What happened in Siebert’s department – and a downtown Buffalo insurance brokerage that now has two wellness coordinators – is nothing short of explosive when it comes to workplace wellness in the region.

An obesity epidemic, the continuing desire of employers who want results from the health insurance dollars they spend, and a keener interest among employees bent on better health have combined to change the wellness equation in a growing number of businesses. Walsh Duffield is among companies leading the way, according to Siebert and other health, fitness and nutrition specialists in the region.

“Walsh gets it,” said Philip L. Haberstro, executive director of the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo. He recently met with Moskal and Pidanick in the Main Street insurance company’s treadmill office, a first-floor space that includes wireless computer technology, a whiteboard, flat-screen TV and four treadmills beneath raised desks.

“If you go to the model of creating health in communities,” Haberstro said, “you begin to see the role that workplaces play. We’re making a transformation from what has been treatment and cure to a balance model that includes prevention and health promotion. Until we start doing that, we’re going to be on that treadmill of costs continuing to escalate.”

Community health leaders in the region are focused on three areas, he said: pushing for more youth activity during and after school; a healthy aging-in-place strategy for seniors; and workplace wellness. Changes in the health insurance industry and the rollout of the Affordable Care Act quickened the pace in the workplace.

Chadd Soto, Independent Health manager of wellness services, said employer-paid health insurance, particularly for companies with 75 or more employees, has moved from “community-rated” models that spread risk, and expense, far and wide, into “experience-rated” models in which what happens in individual workplaces has a greater impact on that company’s health insurance costs. A growing number of companies also are exploring self-insurance, prompting an even greater interest in workplace wellness.

“I think everybody’s realizing you can look at the doctors and make sure they’re doing their job, you can look at the insurance companies and make sure they’re doing their job, but now it’s time to look in the mirror,” Soto said. “That’s where it’s going right now.”

Which begs the question: Are you and your company keeping up?

Many employers long ago moved well beyond the annual health fair and flu shot clinic, Siebert and Soto said.

Edward F. Walsh, Walsh Duffield president and chief operating officer, said the company decided to be among the regional leaders to help its employees and insurance clients, as well as serve as a wellness incubator for the greater community.

“What we’re doing here is very connected to developing solutions,” he said. “Not everything works, so you have to keep trying different things. You have to freshen it up.”

Here’s how the company jumped into wellness during a recent renovation:

1. Work stations: Walsh Duffield swapped out its old desks with new ones that can raise or lower easily, allowing employees to work while standing or sitting. Pidanick, the personal trainer, usually stands, as do many of her co-workers. “I just find it better for my back,” said Pidanick, adding that standing also keeps workers more focused and awake.

2. Shared space: The treadmill office has become popular for meetings and individual work time. “A lot of the medical carriers like to see it because it’s something new and different,” said Jon Sommer, a benefits service coordinator. A second-floor health nook includes a pedal bike, blood pressure cuff and host of handouts related to health, fitness and nutrition.

3. Health screenings: Employees receive health insurance through BlueCross BlueShield and are into their second year of a “Blueprint for Wellness” plan that involves health screenings for high blood pressure, diabetes, waist circumference and more. Spouses and other eligible family members are included; if somone falls outside the proper range, the company includes ideas on how to get back in.

4. Shared information:

A hallway bulletin board near one entrance includes the latest on upcoming regional wellness events and a pouch with healthy recipes. The company also has a newsletter with health tips and a calendar of events that includes walks, 5K runs and office-related wellness activities. Moskal has a blog on the company website, The company also hosts a quarterly wellness roundtable and invites clients. A healthy lunch is served, and the group talks about which wellness efforts are working and which can be improved.

5. Food: A first-floor kitchen, as well as a small second-floor kitchen, include baskets and refrigerators that offer healthy snacks under a modestly priced honor system. Choices include water, cheese, yogurt and fruit, and Moskal and Pidanick keep a fresh stock of almond milk – no milk or creamer – for coffee drinkers. One employee’s relative, a healthy chef, offers vegetable-based soups and other meals for sale once a week. The two wellness coordinators recently met with a healthy vending machine company; Walsh Duffield may not use the firm in-house but refer it to larger employers who are among its clients.

6. Contests and activities: The company hosts a yoga program at noon Tuesdays and Thursdays. “An employee got that going; she’s really into yoga,” said Pidanick, who teaches Pilates and yoga classes, and does one-on-one personal training. The company also participates in the BlueCross BlueShield Lose to Win weight-loss program. “We’ve also done an office Olympics,” Moskal said.

7. Gadgets: Walsh, Moskal and Pidanick all wear a Jawbone Up, a fitness band that tracks steps, calories and sleep patterns. “Say you want to get up at 6, but it recognizes you’re in a light sleep at 5:45. It’ll buzz and wake you up at 5:45, because it’s better to wake up when you’re in a deep sleep,” Moskal said. The cost ranges from $125 to $150; the more expensive model can sync wirelessly with a smartphone to share info; the less expensive one can be plugged into a smartphone. Fitbit and the Nike Fuel fitness trackers are similar. The company gave away a Fitbit to the most recent Lose to Win in-house winner. “Everyone’s different,” Moskal said. “A Jawbone Up might work for a handful of people, but for others it’s too much information.”

8. Gym: A growing number of insurance plans now offer gym discount memberships. Walsh Duffield built its own gym, on the third floor of its office building. It includes locker rooms and a wellness conference area, as well as fitness floor space that contains resistance bands, balls, free weights and cardio machines. “People are very excited about this,” Pidanick said. “When you come up here around 12 or 1 o’clock, during lunch, that’s probably the busiest time.” Added Moskal, “The Walsh family is generous. They encourage us, ‘Bring your spouse, bring your significant other. Your friends are welcome to come here,’ ” though folks do have to sign a waiver. “Our thought is it’s going to be a lot easier to stick to your healthier lifestyle if you have your friend or family member along for the ride,” Moskal said. “That’s our thought, too, in terms of getting education out there.”