When ambition and anxiety collide: Finding support at work when the waters get rocky

When I first joined Geckoboard in May, I was sent some information to help me find my feet here. I was most interested in the part about our office space. At my previous role providing UK support for Moz, I had been 100% remote, working from a desk in my spare bedroom or the nearest coffee shop. The idea of having an actual office was new and I was looking forward to it, even though I intended to continue working remotely 50% of the time.

The office details contained an interesting postscript: “Speak to Hannah to arrange your events.” I was excited to learn we have the opportunity to use the building’s events space, which belongs to our downstairs neighbor, HelloFresh. I wanted to book the space for an evening event around Customer Support and Success and was given not only an enthusiastic thumbs up from the Geckoboard team, but also their sponsorship and backing to make it a success.

There are some big changes taking place in the world of customer support right now. We’re starting to see a recognition of the importance of this work and more value placed on it as a career. Perhaps because there’s a more immediate relationship with our customers in SaaS or maybe because we know that getting customer service wrong can now cause huge waves on social media. We need to know how our customers use our product, what problem we’re solving for them, and where things are going wrong.

There are some incredibly smart and engaged people writing about how to use data to help customers and become better at solving their problems. Despite this, we don’t have many in-person opportunities to learn from one another. While some of my colleagues recently took some time to attend a conference for their programming language, the same opportunities don’t exist for those of us working in customer support, at least not in the UK.

For almost two years, I’ve been helping organize a breakfast meet-up for the Customer Support community in London, as well as a podcast that grew out of it, Support Breakfast. I really wanted to turn that into something bigger — an opportunity to bring us together to learn from one another, celebrate our successes, and eat delicious pizza. I want to help our community build connections, develop new speakers, and shout about what we’re doing.

Filled with enthusiasm and confidence, I started planning for the first London Support Lab event in July 2017. September seemed like far enough away that I had plenty of time to make sure everything was perfect. I booked the space, talked to the support community in the Support Driven Slack group, and reached out to some friends who had experience with events. I was prepared, I was on top of things, and I knew what I was doing.

Smooth sailing…at first.

I had a fairly firm idea of how I wanted things to work right from the start. I knew I wanted panels rather than individual talks, partly because I think panels can be less intimidating for new speakers and I wanted to try and encourage a wide variety of viewpoints. But mainly because I didn’t want to deal with slide decks and their numerous potential issues for my first event. This turned out to be a wise decision since the projector decided not to work during the event.

I also knew what I wanted the panels to discuss: Metrics. It was an area where I thought the support community would have a lot to learn from each other and also something relevant to what we do here at Geckoboard.

I spoke to a few people I knew would have something interesting to say. With them on board and a brilliant logo from Geckoboard designer, Ollie I set up the Eventbrite page for ticket sales and a few people bought tickets. Everything was going great! This was going to be amazing! I was great at this.

Rocky waters

The first panellist to drop out wasn’t a problem. They even arranged their own replacement and let me know that they would definitely be interested next time.

But time was passing quickly. Soon it was August and I still didn’t have all of my panellists in place. I’ve been reassured that this actually happens fairly often and is one of the problems with panels. Ticket sales had also slowed to a trickle. We didn’t have a temporary event notice for the event from the council and weren’t 100% sure what not having one would mean.

Would we need to cancel?

Recognizing anxiety and self-imposed pressure

I’d been working from home because I wasn’t feeling good. I felt nauseated every time I ate. My heart was racing even when I was sitting quietly doing relaxing things like marathoning dramas on Netflix. I’ve always had trouble shutting my brain off in order to get enough sleep, but now I was also waking up at least once during the night and finding it impossible to drift off again. When I did sleep, I was waking up with headaches from grinding my teeth. Just getting up in the morning felt insurmountable and that was before I even got to thinking about the event.

I went to my doctor about my physical symptoms and came out of it with an anxiety disorder diagnosis.

I think I made it into the office for one day over the course of the three weeks after my diagnosis. Not making it into the office meant no chance to go to the council to arrange the Temporary Event Notice. Everyone at Geckoboard was concerned for me and rushed to reassure me that I needed to look after myself and shouldn’t worry, even though I hadn’t shared the details of my diagnosis. There was no pressure to work when I was feeling too bad for it or to come into the office if that was more than I could handle. Adele from the marketing team stepped up to organize the Temporary Event Notice.

Anxiety doesn’t care what’s happening in your everyday life — your body goes into fight or flight mode even when everything is fine and there’s no logical reason to worry. That said, I hadn’t exactly been helping myself. I’ve always been the kind of person who likes a challenge and hates to be bored. If I have free time, I’ll fill it with things to do. I’m either going 90 miles an hour trying to do 12 different things or I’m at a standstill, exhausted and feeling guilty about my lack of productivity.

I work full-time, I’m studying for a computer science degree part time, I co-host a podcast, organize meetups and also have to take care of everyday things like laundry and buying groceries. I want to be the best that I can at everything I do so, even when there’s no external pressure being put on me, I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed.

Although there was no pressure from Geckoboard to be in the office or to make sure that 100 people showed up for the event, I knew that I’d cashed in a lot of favors with friends when inviting them to speak. I needed London Support Lab to go well — for my own sake.

I had vacation booked at the beginning of September and I was still a few panellists short. I went to Wales for a week and tried not to think about it, with various degrees of success.

When I came back, it was the week before the event. I needed to sell another 20 tickets to think of the event as a success. I had two speakers missing. And it was the first week on my new anti-anxiety medication. I spent a day lying in bed as the room seemed to spin and lurch around me. I mentally made lists of all the things I needed to do and berated myself for not being able to stand up or look at a computer screen in order to get them done.

Learning to ask for help

I came into the office the next day knowing that I’d need to talk to someone about what was going on with me but filled with anxiety about doing so. I knew rationally that Geckoboard wouldn’t do something terrible, but anxiety doesn’t listen to reason and my brain wanted to show me a highlight reel of all the worst case scenarios.

At Geckoboard, we have a company value: Health and family first, always. I’d seen it in action with other people taking time off as needed to be with family. I’d also seen in our internal Slack the use of “taking a mental health day” when someone couldn’t manage work that day, followed by an outpouring of support and kindness. It felt different when it was me, but the response I’ve received has been nothing but that same support.

When we talk about this value, we don’t just mean time off but also flexibility so that you can work from home or some kind of provisions to make your life easier. ‘How would you rate your home/life balance’ is a question in our self-assessment for performance reviews and it’s taken seriously. When I was overwhelmed, I couldn’t answer when I was asked to let people know what I needed but they have continued to check in with me so that I know I have the opportunity to ask. Those who I haven’t already told about my anxiety (Surprise!) have respected my privacy when sharing with me their concern about my wellbeing.

I don’t feel pressure to say “I’m fine” when people ask how I am and I think that’s how you really know that you work somewhere special.

So many people pitched in to help me out when I was worried that my event was going to fail. While I was reaching out to my network to find the last panellists, so were Thaisa, Simon, and Luis. Adele made sure that we had plenty of drinks, snacks, and delicious pizza. Javier and Simon greeted people, checked them in and handed out the name stickers. (Those were a failure, but that’s another story.) I’m forever grateful to Paul for wrangling one of my panels and fighting with the projector for me and to Ina for fighting with the microphones.

And when I stood in front of that crowd — not a sell out crowd but enough people to make me feel like I’d done well — I was anxious but I also felt incredibly proud and accomplished. Not everything was perfect but it felt like it was.

Turning tiny failures into big lessons

I owe so many thanks to the team here at Geckoboard for all their help putting London Support Lab together. I couldn’t have done it without them and I learned that it’s okay to need help and to ask for it. Everyone really pulled together and the event was a huge success.

So what now? We’re going to do it again — the parts that worked, at least — and now we know what not to do. I’ll remember that failure is what helps you learn and that success doesn’t require perfection. Anxiety isn’t something that goes away overnight but I know that I’m going to be okay — I’m in good hands here.

If you’d like to join us for the next London Support Lab event on February 1st 2018, you can sign up here to be notified when tickets go on sale.

P.S. This blog post wasn’t the one I intended to write at all. I wanted to share with you some tips for planning your own events but it took on a life of it’s own. I hope you’ll forgive me. I couldn’t find the words to share on World Mental Health day but Geckoboard supported me to take what I needed to help with my anxiety and this blog post was what I needed.