Who are the Jailbitters and the Weapons of Mass Reduction: An Interview with Julia Ferguson about Workplace Wellness in Adams County, CO

August 12, 2015 at 7:01 am Leave a comment

As Fitbits and other wearable activity trackers become increasingly common for individual and group use, it is easy to wonder how successful they are at increasing and sustaining fitness. Kristen Daudelin and I were therefore excited to talk on June 25, 2015 with Julia Ferguson, Sustainability Coordinator at the Adams County Manager’s office in Brighton, CO, about the FitBitters Challenge program she coordinates for the county to use Fitbits to increase employee fitness. She told us about how her office set it up, what the County has learned so far, and how, part way through the initiative, the program has increased fitness, as hoped, and has also increased morale and comradery.

How the Program Started

The Office of Performance, Innovation, and Sustainability started planning in February 2015 and the six-month challenge launched April 1. The Office obtained roughly $15,000 funding to purchase the devices and incentives for the program.  The $100 Fitbit Flex were purchased for $80 each with a discount from Fitbit, and employees were asked to contribute $20 towards their portion of the device; the County covered the remainder of the cost.  Employees were also required by law to be taxed on the benefit, which was approximately another $20. Employees keep their Fitbit at the end of the program, or even if they drop out.

Employees were notified about the program, and a web form was available for signing up. When it was made available, at 8 am, 30 people signed up in 10 seconds. The cut off for signing up was at 120 participants, but 180 registered before the form could be shut down.

Employees were allowed to participate using their own device, resulting in 242 total participants in the Challenge, out of 1800-2000 employees (a number that fluctuates since some are seasonal). The only requirement, besides signing up quickly enough, was that employees had to be benefit eligible.

The County used a third party vendor for the pre- and post-assessments, which are optional, as required by their legal department. For the 188 participants who choose to have them, they record weight, BMI, body fat percentage, blood pressure, and waist circumference (how often are health assessments repeated, only beginning and end? Yes, just a pre- and post- assessment). The County receives aggregate data regarding the health assessments from a third party vendor in a HIPAA compliant fashion. Demographics of participants: 35 men and 153 women, most in their 40s, followed by 30’s, and then 50’s.

What Happened the First Three Months

Julia provided an orientation sheet for participants. She provided training as needed to help people to set up their Fitbits and encouraged them to join teams. They used Fitbit’s app (with their own branded site for the county? No, just the Fitbit.com dashboard. Unfortunately at the time we started the program there was no way to brand it for corporate/company programs. I believe Fitbit is working on developing that capability. ) to set up their teams of 4-6, and over 200 of the 242 participants joined teams.

Over the past few months, Julia set up monthly challenges and sent out encouraging, lighthearted, weekly emails. Each competing group used a group page and a personal page. Several teams have very clever names, including:

  • Jailbitters (from prison workers)
  • Weapons of mass reduction
  • Fit to be fabulous
  • Thin to win
  • Lean and mean
  • Blister sisters
  • 6 ferociously fit females
  • Preventative maintenance (custodial workers)

How the Program Will End

Julia and her office’s efforts included everything from promoting the program, troubleshooting and training for participants, monitoring use, and planning incentives and prizes. Teams will have until the end of September until the competition closes and prizes are distributed.

Participants receive entry into prize drawings when certain challenges are achieved.  These challenges become progressively more difficult over time. Julia has noticed that people are not asking about the prizes but are instead self-motivated and encouraging towards others.

Forms of Assessment

The vendor is supplying reports of aggregate data while Julia is careful to make sure that legal and communication teams work together. So far, a few people have expressed concern and a few people have dropped out; the few people who have dropped out have done so because they have stopped working for the county such as for retirement. Only 3-4 participants have otherwise left.

What Julia Has Learned So Far

Julia personally has learned a lot in the process including workplace labor laws and HIPAA compliance. The Office of Performance, Innovation, and Sustainability is interested in individual versus group motivation and other intangibles, such as how to motivate and engage employees. Even though this is a voluntary program, Julia learned that she could not offer prizes for activities to ensure that everyone has the same opportunity to get prize entries.

On a larger scale the County has surmised that employees are very self-motivated. In addition to the tools provided through the FitBitters Challenge, employees are using mobile devices and Fitbit forums. Furthermore Julia notices colleagues walking more even when they aren’t participating in the program. People say that it is helping them motivate their families to increase their fitness and that they are meeting people at work they would normally not come in contact with, so there are social as well as fitness benefits. A post survey will include some of these less quantifiable metrics, also attitude workplace.

What Julia Would Do Differently

Adams County has learned several lessons in regards to effective pilot program implementation using ‘wearables’ that will inform future program development. More effective communication at the beginning about the web form and being able to stop it when the goal number reached is the first. Also, some people didn’t have the access to emails and couldn’t participate because they were not part of roll-out. Next time around, the County would utilize a dummy account so that the coordinator would not need to spend hours subtracting her own data as a participant for each group. For larger programs that are beyond the pilot phase and cost is not a constraint, other options include opening the program to all employees and hold more events such as a field day or nutritionist talks.

Advice from Julia

Julia had a lot of valuable advice for us. She told us to be careful when communicating about the intent of the program and deciding how devices are distributed. Due to the popularity of these devices, people may enroll and then lose interest in participating, so it is important to encourage people to enroll only if they will remain active participants.  She inferred that possible issues might be encountered outside the 18-34 age range when it came to troubleshooting the technology. Julia suggested reaching out to sustainability coordinators and asking participants for donations as well as reaching out to Fitbit in hopes of getting returned or unwanted Fitbits. Other suggestions included reaching out to Target, Sports Authority and Best Buy with a vinyl sticky that could go on cases of devices or electronic recycling programs. Julia also suggested reaching out to gyms.


Julia closed by saying that she was happy to share with others the cost effective $15,000 program that has had a huge impact on their county. Post assessments of health measures at the end of the program will provide more information about the value of the program in terms of reducing health care costs and improving health, but in the meantime employees are more motivated, more productive, and more active because of their participation!

My thanks to both Julia Ferguson, for her time, and Kristin Daudelin, my summer intern, for her assistance interviewing Julia and writing this with me.

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Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, ScM

Lisa GualtieriLisa Gualtieri is Assistant Professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine. She is Director of the Certificate Program in Digital Health Communication. Lisa teaches Designing Health Campaigns using Social Media, Social Media and Health, Mobile Health Design, and Digital Strategies for Health Communication. Contact Lisa: lisa.gualtieri@tufts.edu

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