Customer-facing roles require energy and resilience, even if you're completely in love with your job.
In a regular workday, you’re responsible for creative problem-solving, continual multi-tasking, thoughtful writing, and a million other things. People who gravitate to support are people who genuinely love helping, and that's awesome. Working with customers is a great fit for those of us who find fulfillment in solving problems for other people.
But it can be hard for some people to admit (especially in a support position at a startup) that their jobs can be draining. The expectation for support folks to be relentlessly cheery is dangerous. By paying attention to how you feel and admitting that there's potential for burnout, you’ll be better prepared to prevent it.
What Is Self-Care?
Self-care is exactly what it sounds like, but it's a foreign concept to many people. It's the whole host of things you do for yourself to maintain your physical, emotional, social, and spiritual well-being. I'm aware of the concept mostly from my background in social work, but I love applying it to other circumstances, too.
American work culture is not the best at self-care. We tend to think of it as selfish, when it's actually what people require in order to do their jobs well and be healthy.
We don’t call our plants selfish when they need water, and our attitude toward the people on our team should be the same.
The old airplane safety metaphor applies perfectly: It's important to put your own mask on first before you help anyone else. You have to take care of yourself so that you can continue to take care of others. The stakes might be lower when you're not on a malfunctioning aircraft, but self-care has a role in every environment.
The Role of Team Culture
A happy team is made up of happy individuals, and those happy individuals meet your customers’ needs and make your business succeed. Team members who are overworked or exhausted are going to have a hard time contributing to a positive team culture, and they're eventually going to move on. Promoting self-care is the right thing to do on a moral level, and it’s also good for business.
It's easy for support to become a gateway to less taxing roles within a company or, worse, a revolving door due to burnout. I've seen it happen. High turnover is a huge detriment, because your customer team should be made up of people who know your business and product inside-out. Fresh-faced newbies are great if they're a sign of growth, but you also need the guidance and expertise of older, wiser employees to have an eye on the big picture. Turnover can only slow you down, and tired, burnt-out team members are the ones who tend to quit.
Taking care of support people is a triple-win for your company, your customers, and your team. So how do you ditch that negative support team culture and keep people both present and content? Lip service or a vague list of benefits isn’t enough here.
It’s important that everyone on your team practices and promotes self-care.
Some teams empower team members by, among many other things, setting a minimum number of vacation days, allowing flexible schedules, or carefully defining benefits so that there is no question about how and when to use them. We do this at Help Scout with our yearly stipends for education and for our home offices. They're at set amounts that do not roll over to the next year, and the guidelines on how to use them are very clear, so no one feels nervous about using their stipend when they need or want to.
Remote teams offer lots of opportunities for self-care, and this is great. We love remote work. But working remotely means you might not notice early signs of burnout in your team members. It might also mean that opportunities for self-care exist, but people don't feel empowered to take them. If the flexibility of working remotely or having unlimited vacation days is a benefit that you offer, your team should feel as comfortable using this benefit as they do using their health insurance card at the doctor's office. (And, yes, part of self-care is going to the doctor when you're sick.)
Your team can do a lot to encourage self-care, and that's important to think about if you're in a leadership role. But self-care ultimately comes back to the "self" part—it's on you. A self-care assessment is a great way to start thinking about the practice or to renew your energy for it. There are some holistic self-care assessments from the social work field that I love, like this one. Here are a few items I'd add or focus on just for customer-facing people:
Read for pleasure.
Customer roles require lots of reading and writing, so it's lovely to do this for fun instead of work when you can.
Get your exercise in.
If you're working on a customer team, you're probably spending a lot of time sitting at your desk and looking at screens. Moving your body in your off time will make you healthier and more energetic.
Be mindful of your thoughts and feelings.
The absolute best thing you can do for yourself is pay attention to how you feel and be non-judgmental with yourself about that. Notice how you feel and think about what you need.
Set boundaries and take breaks.
There's always more you can do for your customers, always emails waiting to be answered. Creating concrete boundaries (e.g. I am turning off my laptop at 4 p.m. today so I can spend time with my family) and sticking to them is vital.
Maintaining Your Self-Care Practice
The natural next step after an assessment is a plan. If you're someone who needs this, it probably feels awkward and self-centered to you. Helping others often means that you put your needs on the back burner, and breaking out of that feels uncomfortable. That's OK. Push through those feelings, and I promise you will see the benefits.
Remember, your customers and team will benefit from working with a happy, whole person, too.
Create your plan and stick to it. Writing things down encourages commitment and can help make a plan a reality. Again, we can draw from the social-work field for a framework to do just that.
I can’t say enough about how valuable it has been for me to learn how to be attentive to how I’m feeling and what I need to make my work and life sustainable for the long term. When I feel refreshed because I’ve just taken an hour to go to a yoga class or because I spent my lunchtime reading a novel or taking a nap, I know I’m able to work to the best of my ability. It’s rewarding to know that I’m performing well at my job, customers are happy because they’ve gotten what they need and have hopefully experienced a personal connection with me, and our business continues to grow.
I wish you love and luck as you work on creating and maintaining a plan to take care of yourself (and everyone else by extension!).