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Health, High Output and the new community Challenge

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“Basically, it’s Weight Watchers with your mates at work,” explained Steve Featherstone, Network Rail’s track programme director, who is putting his weight behind a new health challenge launched in February. 

His description of the project might be brief, but its potential impact is anything but. 

A different type of enhancement programme

Titled the Track Safety Alliance (TSA) Health Challenge after its adoption by the industry group, the voluntary programme involves four six-week ‘workouts’, which have been designed to improve participants mental and physical health by focusing on the four key elements to the health jigsaw: sleep, nutrition, fitness and mental wellbeing.

A 90-page booklet sits at the heart of the challenge, guiding participants through the process, from baseline evaluation to each four-week workout programme and the final evaluation and survey. 

After inputting data such as the amount of alcohol consumed each week, weight and the number of push ups the participant can achieve, they are guided each week by advice, objectives and meal inspiration to help them achieve whatever their aim is – whether it’s weight loss, building strength, better sleep or improved mental health. Progress is then tracked in the booklet’s diary, which participants can choose to keep confidential or share with others.

Lifestyle changes

Although the challenge takes place over a fixed period of time, it hopes to promote positive changes to workers’ lifestyle over the long-term. Working on the railway is, for many people, more than a job. It leads to unsociable hours with irregular shift patterns and is often in locations with a lack of access to healthy foods. Historically, it doesn’t lead to a healthy lifestyle. 

The challenge came about because of the stark contrast in the experience of Ian Gildart, who joined the rail industry as a machine operator at the turn of the century after a successful career in  rugby league. From an employer such as Wigan Warriors which was almost entirely focused on Ian’s health and wellbeing, to maximise his performance, to those in the rail industry which would ask him to work all manner of hours in difficult conditions, it was quite the contrasting situation. 

Later down the line Ian and his Network Rail colleague Mick Haley created what was initially branded the High Output Health Challenge, which was successfully rolled out to the unit’s 700-person workforce in 2018. After a refresh and rebrand, the challenge has now been rolled out to the supply chain.

High Output experience

Ben Brooks, High Output Alliance director, took part in the initial challenge and spoke to TSA members about his experience as part of the new challenge’s soft launch in February. 

“Some people saw it as the thing that made them think about their sleep,” said Ben, who lost 10lbs and started to pay more attention to his hydration and sleep levels during the six-month challenge in 2018. “Others have said it motivated them to think about exercise when they’re away from home and staying in a hotel for weeks or months on end. 

“I was in Retford with some of the guys last week and, on their initiative, they went to the hotel and said: ‘Look, we’re here for two months, is there any chance you can change the menu and work with us?’ So the hotel put some daily specials on and tried to keep it healthy. 

“Some of it is the team recognising they shouldn’t just accept the burger and chips, fish and chips and steak kind of menu. That’s great if you’re off out on a Friday night for a meal but you can’t live like that.

“The guys also got lunch bags from the hotel too with a healthy sandwich and a piece of fruit rather than having to call at the garage to pick something up on the way to site. 

“They’re small things but by raising awareness you raise people’s expectations.”

The benefits of good health

ORR has calculated that ill health costs the UK rail industry around £790 million a year, demonstrating the importance of looking after the workforce’s health and wellbeing on a business level. But, as Ben added, when the work is as intense as it is, the employer should have a personal responsibility to give staff the necessary support to maintain a healthier lifestyle. 

Ben added: “Ultimately there are benefits to those taking part and clearly benefits to the business as well from having a healthy, engaged workforce. Certainly, from a Network Rail point of view, it’s about demonstrating that we care about the guys. It is a lifestyle decision getting involved and working away from home working nights, so let’s support the whole lifestyle.” 

Rail staff share why they’re taking part:

Steve Featherstone

Age: 52

Job title: Track programme director

Employer: Network Rail

“I need to lose a stone in weight and I’m highly competitive. So, if I can combine a sense of competition with a need to lose weight, then I think I’ll be much better for it. 

“I’m most looking forward to being a little bit fitter. I took up cycling a few years ago and I would like to be carrying a stone less weight when I’m out.”

Michelle Marsh

Age: 36

Job title: Training co-ordinator

Employer: Redstone Rail

“I’m hoping to gain more knowledge on nutrition and see if it helps with my anxiety. I also want to feel less bloated. I have never been able to get back to how my stomach used to be before I had my son, so I would love to see results there. I also want to get physically stronger.”

Paul David Munnelly

Age: 32

Job title: Managing director

Employer: MacRail Systems

“As a business leader I think we have an obligation to our workforce. It’s easy to fall into bad habits, especially in rail where there are quite unsociable hours, where its easy to pickup a pasty or a sausage roll and not think about health, but health is wealth and its essentially going to keep you engaged with society and family.”

Sam Knight

Age: 42

Job title: Workforce safety advisor

Employer: McGinley Support Services

“I’m taking part to get back on track with a healthy lifestyle following becoming a father again eight weeks ago. Following separation in 2016 I adjusted my eating habits and trained like hell and achieved some great results. This lasted six months then fell by the way side and I’m now possibly at my heaviest I’ve been.

“I’m hoping to achieve positive change through the eating and exercise regime.”

Angela Rodgers

Age: 34

Job title: Environment manager (IP Track)

Employer: Network Rail

“After coming back from maternity leave I thought this could be something good for me. Returning to work after so long you want a bit of motivation so I got one of the books to improve my fitness and to eat a bit better.

“I’m much fitter now than when I started the last health challenge. I’ve pretty much been on maternity leave for the last two to three years, so I wanted to get back into my fitness. I think the fitness and food side of things is definitely what I’ll carry on focusing on in this next challenge”.