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Thriving with Wellbeing in the Workplace — with Lee Chambers

If you’re here, you probably know that prioritizing employee wellbeing is essential to create a thriving and productive work environment. It is important for organisations to do what they can to help take care of all facets of people’s health and wellness. But not all workplace wellbeing initiatives are effective or inclusive to a diverse workplace. It is important to assess what initiatives work and what initiatives don’t, and furthermore to determine why certain initiatives fall short.

To get more insights, we recently chatted with Lee Chambers for the third episode of season two of The Exclusion Exchange series.

Lee Chambers is a British psychologist, entrepreneur, male ally, and speaker. He is the founder of PhenomGames and Essentialise Workplace Wellbeing. Chambers was inducted as a Kavli Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences in 2023.

He has been interviewed by Vogue, The Guardian, and Newsweek, and is known for analysing the psychological aspects of the workplaces, wellbeing, and intersectionality. He is one of the UK’s leading voices on male allyship and gender equity. He was named as a Marie Claire Future Shaper 2022, alongside Harry Styles and Tom Daley, and was inducted into the Black Cultural Archives in 2022 for services to Business and Health. He is trusted by publications such as Medical News Today, the BBC and Healthline, and recently featured as an expert in IKEA’s docuseries, “It won’t feel like home, ‘til it feels like you.” He is also the author of The Millennial’s Guide to Wellness and has another book in the pipeline.

Lee won the Professional Service Startup of the Year at the National Startup Awards and has also been awarded the Service Entrepreneur of the Year at the Great British Entrepreneur Awards. He was named as an Exceptional Entrepreneur by the Startups 100 Index and a Man for Gender Balance at the Rising Star Awards. Based in the North West, and working globally, he is passionate about conscious leadership, equality of health opportunity and menopause awareness.

Keep reading for some key insights on wellbeing in the workplace from Lee.

How did you get started working in social justice and wellbeing in the workplace?

I was naturally a curious child with a strong passion for social justice from an early age. I was the first in my extended family to attend university, where I studied business and psychology. It was a mix of privilege and pressure and unfortunately had to withdraw during my second year due to poor mental health. I took a year to focus on self-improvement at home, and it was through these personal struggles that my passion truly ignited. I became more self-aware and emotionally intelligent, eventually returning to school and graduating—a testament that challenges can be overcome.

Shortly after, I lost my first job during the 2008 recession, prompting another period of self-reflection on what to do next. I found my footing in local government, using it as a platform to build a business. This experience taught me invaluable lessons about leadership, team management, and decision-making in my mid-20s, despite limited prior experience. The weight of how our actions and decisions can impact others' livelihoods became apparent.

In 2014, a health setback forced me to relearn how to walk. This pivotal moment made me realise society's notion of success didn't align with my own. Managing a chronic autoimmune illness became part of my journey. Rather than returning to my business, I prioritised recovery and took on the role of a stay-at-home dad. Amid it all, I also completed a master’s degree.

Therefore, I'm now driven to create something meaningful every day, leaving a legacy that matters. I've learned that it's about finding opportunities within challenges. My lifelong passion for social justice, instilled in me since childhood, now combines seamlessly with my understanding of running a business and applying these principles in real-world scenarios. This fusion allows me to create environments where people can thrive, particularly in the workplace.

How has allyship been a part of your personal and professional journey?

My first encounter with allyship dates back to my primary school years, where I faced daily bullying as a black child in a predominantly white community in the 80s. After the incidents were reported to my teacher, she exemplified active allyship by mobilising the local parents, teachers, and community to combat racism. She was an older white woman, and her active allyship was a strong positive example that left a profound mark on me, showcasing the profound impact allyship can have on an individual's life.

Throughout my life, whether dealing with mental health struggles, physical ailments, or experiences of racism, I've been fortunate to have a support network to help lift me out of hard times. This privilege has been a cornerstone of my advocacy for allyship, as it emphasizes the transformative power people can have by being inclusive and extending a helping hand to others.

What is the significance of wellbeing in the workplace?

The idea of workplace wellbeing started over 50 years ago, with Johnson & Johnson’s 'Fit for Life' programme in the states. This programme initially was created for cost-saving measures, and many programmes still are driven by finances rather than true wellbeing principles.

Today, there is an increase in learning and development around how to build wellbeing as a set of skills to improve your health outcomes. It is a still young industry, and the efficacy of many initiatives are questionable, as a lot is still driven by commercialism and financial outcomes rather than actually promoting health.

However, there has been a shift in recent years towards true health and wellness solutions. I believe in making work a net-positive experience for all, transcending mere financial considerations. We spend a lot of time and effort at work, and work is not always fun, but it should be a net promoter of positivity.

We look at the foundational elements of work design, management, and leadership to uncover the barriers to inclusion, wellbeing, and equity. We see how the systems are broken and work to actively fix them. The reality is that people need to trust institutions, feel that they belong, and find joy and connection in their work.

How can we provide support for wellbeing in the workplace?

It is essential to start with qualitative and quantitative data about the specific challenges people are facing in the workplace. This data is an integral part of any effective wellbeing strategy.

Before introducing solutions, you must gather information about what barriers exist, what pain points people are experiencing, etc. Knowing objectively where you are starting from is the only way to see how solutions will make a difference in the future.

Furthermore, the wellbeing industry is currently a very one-dimensional, privileged industry. Initiatives and products are generally created for a euro-centric, upper-class, wealthy population that have the capacity to engage with them. They are not created for those working multiple jobs and experiencing daily microaggressions in the workplace.

Marginalized communities have so many multi-faceted issues. Wellbeing isn’t just mental health — it is financial health, physical health, social health, intellectual health, and more. Equity, inclusion, and belonging are deeply tied to wellbeing.

No two challenges or companies are alike, so long-term, transformational culture changes need to be specific, holistic, and transcend one-size-fits-all solutions.

How can workplace wellbeing initiatives incorporate neurodiversity?

Historically, neurodivergence research has focused on young, white boys, even though it is a universal experience that is also prevalent in women and marginalized groups. Therefore, our understanding of neurodiversity is rather limited.

Historically, neurodivergence has also been incorrectly framed as a disorder, deficit, or a disease that needs to be cured. Instead, it is simply a variation in cognition style, not dissimilar to being left-handed in a world designed for right-handed people.

Just as workplaces can make minor adjustments to accommodate left-handed people in the office, workplaces can also make small adjustments to help neurodivergent people overcome challenges and thrive. The reality is these adjustments don’t need to be huge and many accommodations can benefit everyone in the workplace.

Workplaces need to realize that it can be very powerful to harness the strengths of everyone’s differences instead trying to fight the differences. This is a very important mindset shift and culture change that I advocate for to ensure everyone has the necessary access and is comfortable in the workplace environment.

Closing thoughts about wellbeing, equity, and inclusion in the workplace

Wellbeing in the workplace is cyclical. Put simply — inclusion fosters belonging and belonging fuels wellbeing.

Belonging is the biggest factor for high wellbeing outcomes. People who score high on wellbeing outcomes behave more inclusively towards other people. So fundamentally, when people are well, they become more inclusive, and people who are more inclusive generate more belonging and wellbeing in others. This is such an important factor in the workplace.

Alternatively, negative environments that include bullying, microaggressions, continuous discrimination, or lack of equity break that positive cycle. These negative factors can seem shockingly prevalent in today’s world. These things are so prevalent today and throughout history it can seem like human society is fundamentally negative, always requiring someone to ‘be lesser’ than others.

But fundamentally, human society doesn’t need to be like this. We can build a more equitable society and therefore a more equitable workplace. We must remain hopeful.

Remember, inclusion fosters belonging and belonging fuels wellbeing. By dismantling inequitable systems and fostering a culture of inclusivity, we pave the way for a future where every individual can thrive. In this cyclical journey, the potential for positive transformation is boundless.

Watch the episode in full

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