Burnout is a troubling trend that impacts millions of people. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), 79% of workers reported work-related stress. Another three out of five said there were negative consequences to this stress. Cybersecurity isn’t immune to these effects. In fact, burnout in cybersecurity is a serious problem, and it’s getting worse due to worker shortages and the nature of the job.
The big question for you as a cybersecurity leader is: can you prevent it? Is it possible to have programs and processes to alleviate some of the strain on cyber professionals? By attempting to mitigate burnout in your team, you’re playing a pivotal role in their mental health, job satisfaction, and career path. Ignoring it yields the opposite — disengaged employees who will likely leave to get the break and support they need.
There’s no one way to prevent burnout. It’s a collection of approaches and strategies that you’ll need to cultivate, test, and adapt. Let’s look at what burnout is, how it impacts teams, and practices for curbing it.
What Is Burnout?
Psychology Today defines burnout as “a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.” In most cases, and in this conversation, the cause is work stress. It doesn’t automatically happen to every person working long hours or having too much on their plates. Many people who eventually suffer from burnout also get the label “workaholic.”
Burnout is a unique type of work stress because there are typically feelings of having no control over their professional life. Someone with burnout loses their identity and can no longer see accomplishments or progress.
What Causes Burnout?
Since burnout is a complex psychological state, it has many different causes. It’s rampant in cybersecurity, with Gartner predicting that nearly half of security leaders will change jobs by 2025 because of it. Their report blames an “unsustainable level of stress.”
Those not in leadership may have an even bigger area of unmanageable stress. If you want to stop burnout, you have to know what triggers it. It’s not usually one thing but many, including:
A lack of cyber employees puts undue strain on resources.
The cyber field is desperate for workers, with millions of open jobs available. Recruiting cyber talent is highly competitive, and the pipeline isn’t growing, as only 12% of current employees are 34 or younger. As a result, companies must do more with less at the expense of workers.
As work and projects keep coming in, there’s no time for people to recover. If they already have a closed mindset and limited perspective, this feeds their feelings of never being able to catch up.
Cybersecurity is a stressful job.
Of course, the nature of the job creates a lot of stress. There are many fires to put out daily, and people are running on adrenaline to deflect threats and reduce risk. Continued high levels of adrenaline aren’t good for the body. We aren’t designed to be in fight-or-flight mode repeatedly. It’s a lot for anyone, even the most technically elite.
If your cybersecurity team’s internal culture offers no support for this in terms of acknowledgment and relief, the stress compounds. People will suffer in silence when there’s no foundation of empathy or trust. Some may not be able to manage the landscape, but most can with some help. Shifting your culture to one that’s open and candid about stress could make a difference.
Detachment is too common in cybersecurity.
You employ technical folks, and many of them want to be individual contributors with little connection. They may think this is the best approach for them, as they may struggle with people skills. Allowing this kind of siloed model to flourish in your team could increase burnout.
For people to have greater job satisfaction, they need to know how they’re contributing and that they are part of something. Cyber folks have the same wants but may not know how to communicate them. If they stay within their comfort zone, burnout can occur as they lose interest and joy in the work.
You can counter this from happening by creating a collaborative framework for your team. They need to work with each other and those outside the department. They may resist, but regular communication keeps them connected to the bigger picture.
Hackers have already won the war.
Another reason for burnout is when your people give up and hand victory to cybercriminals. They feel too overwhelmed by the never-ending parade of threats and risks. In response to these feelings, they resign themselves to being passive, not active. The worse the burnout gets, the more cynical they become. If they deem themselves and the organization unable to thwart hackers, they’ll have little motivation to grow and evolve.
Technical folks need to be the smartest person in the room.
Another culprit of burnout is the need for technical people to be the smartest person in the room. They have to have all the answers and know everything about cybersecurity. These people aren’t easy to work with and often posture when challenged. This behavior is self-serving, but not in a positive way. This pressure builds and builds, causing many burnout symptoms — fatigue, anger, irritability, and disillusionment.
With all these things against you, you may think preventing cybersecurity burnout is unreasonable. However, there are things you can do to alleviate it.
Preventing Cybersecurity Burnout with the Secure Methodology
If you want the best chance at keeping burnout at bay for your team, you will need to make some changes. You could do a “risk” assessment of your people and who you think may be dealing with burnout. You’ll also need to evaluate your processes and culture, which could be contributing factors.
Once you know how big the problem is (or will be), you’ll look to new approaches for resolution. One could be the Secure Methodology™, a seven-step guide I developed to help cyber leaders transform their employees. It allows them to broaden their perspective, communicate more effectively, open their mindset, and collaborate better. It’s not a magic cure for burnout, but its principles treat each person as if they have value and are more than a worker.
Here’s how each step can be part of your burnout prevention plan:
In the first step, people become aware of themselves and others. They can start to understand their behaviors and how they impact others. Awareness is something most people find difficult. Technical folks struggle even more. By achieving a new level of awareness, a lot of the all-consuming dread and fear that ignites burnout can ease.
People either have a growth or fixed mindset. When it’s fixed, they will not bend or change. They accept their perspective and won’t work to adapt it. You can see how this would influence burnout. On the other hand, a growth mindset enables people to evolve their thoughts and opinions. They are eager to learn. An open mindset keeps people engaged and can be a crucial defender of burnout.
You have the most control over acknowledgment. It’s about showing appreciation to your workers and acknowledging their successes. Hearing this feedback is an excellent antidote to burnout, where people don’t feel connected to the organization. You still need to ensure accountability for things that go wrong, but these regular moments of reflection on someone’s efforts matter.
The fourth step is communication, and it’s really part of all of them. Communication is a key ally in defending against burnout. Regular, consistent, and transparent communication with your team ensures they understand expectations and what’s going on regarding workload and priorities.
Your team members also need to communicate with each other in a collaborative and cooperative manner. How they speak to those outside of cybersecurity matters as well. Cybersecurity is a support industry, so your clients, whether internal or external, have a significant role in the daily lives of workers. Fostering better interactions within your team and with others creates better relationships, making burnout less likely to happen.
Monotasking can be a great strategy to combat the overworked. It’s the practice of focusing time on specific tasks without disruptions. This concept can improve concentration and keep people from trying to do too much at one time. Encourage your employees to block off time on their calendars for monotasking.
Empathy in cybersecurity centers on understanding someone else’s feelings and perspective. When technical people work on this soft skill, they can feel less frustrated with users. They may have a lot of blame and resentment because humans are fallible. Releasing some of this could be a way to curtail burnout.
The final step is Kaizen, which means “change for the better.” It’s the goal of the Secure Methodology and a crucial part of cybersecurity in terms of continuous improvement. It’s not an end to the journey since you can never stop improving. In terms of burnout, employees who embrace being flexible and adaptable may be able to avoid it. It could also dismiss those nagging fears of being perfect. In Kaizen, there’s no perfect, just constant improvement.
Check Out the Secure Methodology Course to Abate Burnout
The Secure Methodology could be the framework your team and organization need to fight burnout in cybersecurity. Check out the course, now available, to get started.