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‘Slow down to speed up’ in sport – and work

12:03pm June 23 2020

Andrew May, who worked for years in elite sport, speaking at Westpac this month. (Provided)

Business leaders must prioritise recovery in a similar vein to elite athletes as the coronavirus accelerates the shift to a “New World of Work” and throws up difficult situations that require optimal decision making, according to performance coach and entrepreneur Andrew May. 

As businesses navigate the first recession since the early 1990s following the COVID-19 shutdown, Mr May said it was critical leaders were physically and psychologically match fit to perform amid massive change, from the rise of “WFH” and death of the “9-5”, to new technologies, management structures and a more intense “survival of the fittest” environment.  

Recalling Kenyan runners’ use of the saying “hapa, hapa” – which means “slowly, slowly” and “now, now” – he said recovery after activity was equally as important in business as it improved heart rate variability (HRV), in turn lifting people’s wellbeing and cognitive functioning. HRV is the variation in time between heartbeats, a higher level associated with health benefits like greater cardiovascular fitness and greater resilience to stress, in contrast to a range of problems when this falls, including anxiety. 

“Leadership is really tough right now,” the former KPMG partner said in a presentation this month at Westpac, noting the shift to managing teams remotely and being more across mental health problems. 

“(But) if we can increase leaders’ heart rate variability by 10 per cent your return will be through the roof… because you make better decisions, you improve your relaxation, stress and recovery. 

“Look at CEOs…especially men, they often age, their hair goes grey, their bodies start to take on weight because they’re not looking after their health and their HRV falls. One of the keys to losing fat is actually sleep and restoration.”

With COVID-19 cases continuing to rise globally, businesses around the world are facing into extended – and often permanent – changes to how they and their employees work. In a more than 100 page report this month on the “new world of remote work”, Citi’s global analysts predicted that “for some, there’s no question about returning to the workplace”, citing how 24 per cent of occupations in the US can be performed remotely and these employ more than half the workforce. 

Su Duffey, Westpac's general manager, HR shared services, recently wrote that this massive shift to distributed workforces – which would remain – had required leaders to “adjust how they manage, keep people motivated, connected and performing”.  

Mr May, who has degrees in exercise physiology and coaching psychology, said leaders were facing a marathon not a sprint ahead and needed to adjust their mindset around their use of time, pointing to the investment by sports in recovery after going hard in training and performances. 

“I realised much more as I looked at world’s best practise sporting teams…they spend more money on recovery, more resources on recovery than they do on training…it’s why they sustain performance,” said Mr May, who spent several years working with Olympic athletes and various sports, including the AFL and the Australian Cricket team.

While conceding white collar workers couldn’t replicate an athlete’s typical day, Mr May said it was important to ensure daily intermittent recovery periods during the day built around “hapa, hapa” to recover energy lost from stress. He used the analogy of children at school having regular breaks, or “slowing down to speed up”.

“We work in pulses too, our bodies work in rhythms of 60-90 minutes and then we need a break,” he said.  

The comments come as governments, regulators and businesses face into an uncertain recovery ahead, with economists alert to September and October when the federal government’s $70 billion JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme and some of the banks’ loan holidays were slated to end. While data suggests the economy has bottomed following better than expected containment of the virus and experts have upgraded their forecasts, the Reserve Bank last week warned “the outlook remained highly uncertain and the pandemic was likely to have long-lasting effects on the economy”.

Mr May, who is onto his fourth venture,, after selling three successful prior businesses, said he understood the difficulties many SMEs were facing in the months ahead, noting 90 per cent of his revenue disappeared overnight when COVID-19 restrictions kicked in during March. He said while the COVID-19 panic across the economy had subsided, current conditions could linger for nine to 18 months and lots of energy would be needed.   

“From our conferences and events, and our high-end leadership programs and coaching, they just stopped,” he recalled. 

“So I looked at my revenue like a lot of your wonderful businesses did and went ‘what am I going to do with the 10 per cent’? So, we literally did not a pivot but a digital backflip to come up with an online program supporting businesses to navigate the New World of Work, so I get the stress small businesses are going through.

“But we’re in a marathon not a sprint. The first bit of COVID was a sprint to Easter – white eyeballs, fear, anxiety, working around the clock. But you need to play the long game…you are not going to be able to make clear decisions from the cerebral cortex if you’re running on adrenaline and stress.”  

As for some simple tips to help become MatchFit (the title of his book) for the New World of Work, Mr May recommended creating a better personalised weekly routine, daily warm ups to enhance focus and productivity, doing 10,000 steps and getting outside every day, and 2-3 alcohol free days a week. 

Michael Bennet was inaugural Editor of Westpac Wire from June 2017 to December 2021. He joined Westpac after more than 12 years in journalism, most recently at The Australian as the national newspaper’s banking reporter based in Sydney. Michael has worked at various News Corp publications and other media companies covering industries including financial services, resources, industrials, markets and economics. He is originally from Perth, Western Australia, where he also wrote across magazines covering the arts with a focus on music.

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