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Interview with Lee Chambers, Environmental Psychologist and Founder of Essentialise Workplace Wellbeing on Overcoming Disability and Building a Resilient Mindset

Lee Chambers MSc MBPsS is an Environmental Psychologist, Wellbeing Consultant and Certified Life Coach. As the Founder of Essentialise Workplace Wellbeing, he is on a mission to prevent the wellbeing challenges of the future of work, starting today. In this Thrive Q&A session, we explore how he has overcome his challenges and how has built […]

Lee Chambers
Lee Chambers

Lee Chambers MSc MBPsS is an Environmental Psychologist, Wellbeing Consultant and Certified Life Coach. As the Founder of Essentialise Workplace Wellbeing, he is on a mission to prevent the wellbeing challenges of the future of work, starting today. In this Thrive Q&A session, we explore how he has overcome his challenges and how has built the mindset and life to flourish.

Lee Chambers is an Environmental Psychologist, Wellbeing Consultant and Certified Life Coach. He is the founder of Essentialise Workplace Wellbeing. Born in Bolton, in the north of the United Kingdom on May 22nd, 1985, he was the first member of his extended family to go to university. He holds a bachelor’s degree in International Business Psychology from Manchester Metropolitan University and an MSc in Environmental Psychology from the University of Surrey. 

Lee lost the ability to walk due to autoimmune arthritis in 2014 and has relearned to walk and become medication free, controlling his chronic illness through lifestyle alone. He has worked in local government, a corporate organisation and in elite sports. Ever since he was young, he had an entrepreneurial spirit, selling his mother’s items on the street corner at age 7, setting up his first business selling Amiga games at 12, and building his first company, PhenomGames, after losing his graduate job in corporate finance during the economic crash in 2008. 

He has always had a passion for the field of psychology, and how it interacts with physiology and biology. With Essentialise Workplace Wellbeing, Lee now works with organisations to create wellbeing strategies than can be measured, embedded within business processes, and can grow organically. This involves building health awareness, and creating workplace environments and cultures that are value driven, conscious of all stakeholder needs, purposeful, and congruent across the whole organisation. He achieves this by combining physical and mental health awareness workshops, environmental psychology assessments, emotional intelligence leadership training and employee wellbeing events. 

Lee often speaks in education about the future of work, and the need for cognitive flexibility, emotional resilience, fostering creativity and mastering communication. Today he lives in Preston, with his wife and two children. He coaches a disability football team in Lancashire and hosts a radio show about Health and Wellbeing on Ribble FM. He enjoys walking in nature, reading and discussing life’s complexities. He is regularly featured in the media on topics surrounding wellbeing and psychology, and is often featured in the Huffington Post, Metro UK and The Telegraph.

What gives you energy?

My energy is very important to me, as I have two businesses, a family to look after, and have a number of voluntary roles that give back to my community. And as I live with a chronic disease that can fatigue me, my energy levels are vital to me living a fulfilling life. I have spent the last four years optimising my nutrition, my sleep and my movement to find exactly what works for me, as we are all bioindividual. I have taken this data and built myself a diet that energises me and includes a little bit of what I can tolerate. I no longer eat anything that drains me or increases my inflammation. I now sleep on a consistent schedule, having experimented to find my chronotype and what an optimal sleep environment, routine and temperature are for me. An I’m now acutely aware of exactly how much movement I need in a week, to find the optimal spot between being too inactive and not pushing myself to a painful level that I cannot recover from.

The other things that energise me are spending time in nature, mediation, stimulating conversations and helping my clients to make breakthroughs and empower themselves.

What’s your secret life hack?

My secret life hack is my morning routine. I wake up at 6 am every morning, read the ikigai card by my bed, which says, “Lee Chambers, your purpose is to empower and encourage” and wash my face and hydrate. I then spend 10 minutes on each of the following; meditating, positive podcast, exercise, visualisation, reading and journaling. I then walk around the block, make breakfast for my children and my day starts with positivity, and I’m living in my own world, without the negative inputs from news, social media or emails. I feel energised, fulfilled, and ready to go and make a difference in the world, and it’s been a game changer for my clarity and wellbeing, as well as my productivity and focus.

What has been the greatest challenge in your life, and how did you overcome it?

The greatest challenge in my life was losing the ability to walk in 2014. I have had difficulties previously in my life, including mental health issues at university, and redundancy, also losing my professional development in the credit crunch. Yet this was a more significant challenge. I had just turned 29 and was in a great life position. In the previous year, my son had just been born, me and my wife bought our first house together, business was booming, and we got married and cruised around the Caribbean. My wife was now six months pregnant with our daughter, and my son was 18 months old. I was thinking of all the things I would love to do before hitting 30. 

And then, one Friday evening, my wrist locked in place. Next, it was my knee, then my shoulder and then my other knee. Within 5 days, I had gone from fully independent and mobile to being unable to walk, shower myself or even eat without assistance. In the hospital, they tested me to try and find out what had happened. I was in shock at first, and then that become frustration, as it didn’t seem fair. Later it became grief, mourning losing my physicality and being uncertain of my future mobility. Despite this, in the second week, I started to turn a corner. You get a lot of time to reflect when you can’t move. I began to realise I hadn’t been grateful for my ability to walk once, and that I hadn’t been grateful enough for all the people now caring for me. And more so, I had grown up in the first world, had free education and healthcare, the freedom to set up a business and work in different industries. I started to see. I had a life of abundance and opportunities. 

I decided I would be proactive and take ownership of my disease and recovery. I began walking rehab, and my daughter was born. I decided that by the time she was walking, I would be walking too. When I was in pain, stiff and had to do my physiotherapy, I thought of running around my garden with her. After eleven months of therapy, I walked a mile unaided, and it was an achievement that brings a tear to my eye six years later. And a week after, my daughter took her first steps. My journey changed my worldview and allowed me to connect to my purpose of helping other people to empower themselves, conquer their challenges, and find their authentic selves and move towards that potential. And this became not only the why behind Essentialise Workplace Wellbeing, but also behind my book, “How To Conquer Anything”.

Name a book that changed your life, mindset or worldview.

I’ve read many books over the years after reconnecting to how passionate I am about reading. Possibly the biggest impact any book had was The Compound Effect, by Darren Hardy. It highlights how the power of why, small changes that compound, and breaking down your goals can create momentum towards your potential. And reading this while relearning how to walk was influential, as every day I was trying to get a little bit better. But it’s not just illness that works like this, but also running a business, human performance and learning new skills all work on similar principles.

Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?

My relationship with my phone in very much based on the work I do, and the research around that. I have a basic smartphone with very few apps because I’m acutely aware of the psychological hooks built into software and platforms to try and keep you active on there. I have all notifications turned off apart from phone calls and text messages, so I’m not alerted continuously and interrupted from my working flow during the day. I work in time blocks that honour my ultradian rhythms, and that allows me to work deeply, and then disconnect from work, so it’s important I don’t just fill the gaps with technology that bombards me with stimuli. Working in waves like this allows me to disconnect from work at the end of the day and avoid burnout. I have a digital sunset each evening where I leave my phone and work technology to charge in my home office for the following day and honour my PM routine of winding down, avoiding blue light and stress and reflecting on my day.

How do you deal with email?

Email has always been one of the things I’ve found challenging, and I’m certainly aware of how I could be more functional with it. I check my work email during set periods of my workday and schedule time to answer any that are urgent. Important emails are moved or forwarded to be dealt with at a future point if they are not critical. If it’s not essential, it gets deleted. I believe that we must be the masters of technology and use it to our advantage, and as soon as we start chasing inbox zero, that is technology controlling us. I still to this day physically write a large amount down in notepads, post notes and cards, as I find I retain information better that way, and I also have a physical diary as well as an online calendar. 

You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it?

Fifteen minutes is the perfect time slot to do something mindful and intention. I would take a nap, except I’m one of those people who can’t sleep during the day. If I’m at home, I will play with my children for 15 minutes, as now they are at school, I see them less. At work, I would lie on my yoga mat and reflect for 15 minutes on what things have gone well, what I’m grateful for, and what I could have done better. Or potentially phone a friend with the intention just to be there and listen for 10 minutes, as social connection is so vital in our busy lives.

When was the last time you felt burned out and why?

I work hard to ensure I’m working in a way that’s sustainable, and where possible regenerative to my mental and physical health. It can be challenging integrating work into life when you have a number of interests and responsibilities. Yet on a basic level, your growth comes when you’re resting and recovering, and having a chronic illness, I’m acutely aware of how burnout will amplify my illness. So I build in periods of disconnection, periods of solitude, periods of play and periods of mindfulness into my schedule. I’m proactive and not afraid to say no if I don’t have the capacity. Because I have defined goals, and boundaries and bright lines around how I recover, and my sleep, I’ve always got a buffer to shield me from burnout, and I use self-care to ensure I’m refreshed and recharged. 

But I’m far from perfect, and adapting to working wholly online in the current crisis has left me feeling burnt out and needing to adapt, as constant video calls are incredibly draining. You need significant gaps in between to account for overrunning, ability to make notes after the call, so you retain information, and then time to disconnect before the next one. It’s all a learning game, and if you’re not experimenting to find where your limits are, you’re probably not driving closer to your potential with enough velocity.

When was the last time you felt you failed, and how did you overcome it?

I’m always failing because I’m still experimenting. I used to fear failure and felt it was a reflection on me. I have always struggled with having a fixed mindset, and it’s taken a lot of work over the years to switch to a more growth-orientated mindset. I’ve had a business fail in the past, and I learned more from that than I have from my successes. And now that has started to pay dividends, as I don’t actually see anything as a failure in the purest form, it’s all lessons, data and part of my journey. It also helps that I tackled my perfectionism as this would stop me from bringing things forward in case they failed because they weren’t perfect. Now I know that a minimum viable product beats a perfect product every time, because you will never get to market as there is no such thing as perfection, and what is optimal is always moving and evolving.

Anyways, as little of topic there, but the last time I felt I failed was when I submitted everything for my Life Coach certification with the ICF. I just felt like it wasn’t right, it wasn’t enough, and I wasn’t ready. I was nervous about the supervision, my portfolio and my assessments. And yet I’m now an accredited life coach with the ICF, and that adds yet another skill to my portfolio to help people both individually and within organisations. Seeing on the system, Lee Chambers, you are an accredited coach, was a great feeling.

Share a quote that you love, and that gives you strength or peace.

My favourite quotes and mantras are: “It’s about connection, not perfection” – I say this when I’m about to lose patience with my children, when I’m speaking on stage at events, and when I feel that inner voice telling me it needs to be perfect.

“Express, not Impress” – This is about being authentically me, and not bending to societies rules and conforming. Again, this is vital as a Keynote Speaker on Resilience, Mindset and Wellbeing, but also when working with clients and in my everyday life.

“Your life is like an ECG, a heartbeat. Expect many ups and downs. Be resilient. If it were a flat line, you would have no challenging times, but you would be dead” So vital to appreciate that life is never always good, but with the right mindset and taking ownership, you can always get back up again and become stronger than you were before. Just as losing the ability to walk made me a better man, husband, father and son. Sometimes I refer to myself as Lee Chambers 2.0.

What piqued your interest in Environmental Psychology, and can you explain exactly what it is?

Environmental Psychology is something I’ve been aware of, and it became incredibly important to me when I realised how much my environmental interaction helped or hindered me in my recovery from losing the ability to walk. I’ve always been fascinated by looking at why people behave the way that they do. An environmental psychologist looks at three specific areas. The first one, which includes my own field, is looking at how urban and built environmental design and stressors affect actions and mental wellbeing. Secondly, how natural environments regenerate us, and how we behave towards nature, and how nature changes our actions, thoughts and feelings. And thirdly, looking at how values, social norms, bias and society affect environmental behaviours, for example, why one person fears climate change, while another believes it doesn’t exist.

My focus in the field is in how workplace and sleep environments affect our wellbeing. For me, this is a vital area of research and application, as we spend around 100 hours every week, either working or sleeping. On a simple level, if we can create and foster environments that are regenerative to our wellbeing, individuals in those environments will be happier, healthier and more productive. And this will mean they are more engaged and motivated in both their work and their lives. And when we are happy, and well, we can give more back to the world, make progress towards our potential and have the energy and time to do the things we love. 

This often involves gathering data from the employees who use the workspace, as they are often not consulted when design, budgets and implementation are often organised by architects, boards, financiers and facilities. We look at a range of factors, such as noise, lighting, density and ventilation. We also look at the cultural environment, to ensure psychological stress is reduced. We look at the clarity of communication, management capabilities, and how congruent leadership is with the company’s values. We consider diversity and inclusion, mental health and safety and employee experience, and how they can be a driver for wellbeing when executed. Overall, my focus is on looking at an organisation in an interconnected way and ensuring that employees have a level of autonomy, the freedom to grow and the health and energy to thrive.

Why did you move into wellbeing consultancy, and what do you bring that is different?

A big part of my reasoning for moving into wellbeing consultancy was my own journey of illness and losing the ability to walk. Having that experience of recovery ignited a passion for helping others, but also for bringing my own interconnected style to wellbeing advancement and delivery.

Firstly, I have the lived experience of recovery and optimising my life to come off my medication. I have high-level qualifications in performance nutrition, strength and conditioning, and advanced sleep. Fusing these with my work in sports and other industries, and my background in psychology, I bring an integrated delivery where we look at a range of physiological and psychological factors in combination, to amplify the benefits and compound small improvements over time. 

We look at sleep, nutrition, movement, mindset, habits and beliefs together and how we can make small changes in each which complement each other and help us to become more responsible for our health and more consistent with change.

Secondly, I bring the approach of looking at the wellbeing challenges of the future, and starting to work to prevent those today. Many practitioners are heart-centred and very good at what they bring, but they are focused on bringing wellbeing to business to solve today’s problems without looking at the long-term view. Automation, biotechnology and off-balance sheet workforce’s all create new wellbeing challenges, while also creating capacity for wellbeing to become a business process embedded at the heart of future policy and strategy. And that is my mission, as a happy, healthy workforce is a precursor to a forward-thinking profitable, sustainable company. Over 150 of the world’s wealthiest entities are companies, and as this accelerates further, it will be businesses solving tomorrows problems, not nations and governments.

Being both a Psychologist and a Life Coach seems to be an unusual combination. How do you find performing both roles?

This is a good question and one that I have been asked before. Both psychology and coaching are indeed different. However, I am an applied organisational psychologist outside of the clinical field. I have a focus on positive psychology principles that promote mental wellness and prevent mental illness, rather than working with people who are suffering from mental ill-health. And in many ways, Life Coaching has a similar approach. It is less directive in nature, and yet the goal-orientated approach lends well to supporting and empowering people to move towards their potential. I can use my psychological knowledge and intuition to help clients explore areas to increase their clarity, take more ownership and find their own limiting beliefs. When combined with coaching, psychology helps me to guide clients to begin to understand just how much their environment can affect their behaviours, thoughts, feelings and emotions, and this along with the accountability help them to navigate their mind, and start to see how to understand others.

It is a privilege to have in-depth knowledge of both roles and be able to fuse them together into my own bespoke delivery, and I get so much fulfilment watching my clients grow and develop on my coaching journey with them.

So, you’re an ICF certified Life Coach, and you decided to build your own coaching model, funnily enough, called The DECIDE Model. What’s the reasoning behind that?

The coaching models that have been around are tried, tested and provide an excellent framework for learning how to coach effectively. I have found both the GROW model and OSKAR to resonate with certain clients, and they are a tool that every coach should look to build from.

For me, I wanted a more comprehensive delivery that also took my skills in other areas and built them into the coaching journey. So I designed, tested and iterated to construct a model, which provides real clarity on goals and direction then starts the process of optimising energy for the journey. With that energy, we then work on navigating the mind, breaking old beliefs and attachments, and building a new mindset that opens up the possibilities. Finally, we plan how to make this consistent and embedded into our life’s journey, empowering change and identifying the sacrifices, priorities and obstacles, making the journey feel real, and our purpose feel aligned.

It’s been a revelation for my clients, and it’s been revolutionary for me. So much so that I often state that coaching with Essentialise is Functional Life Coaching, because it brings a tangible system while keeping the organic nature of coaching relationships, and the open, honest conversation. And deep down, it’s part of want I wish for my legacy to be. I want to people at my funeral to say, “Lee Chambers impacted the happiness and health of people across the world and left the world a healthier and happier place than he came into it”.

You can connect with me here: Lee Chambers

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