Mental health and burnout in cybersecurity: tips, stories and perspectives
At the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, gymnastics legend Simone Biles surprised everyone when she retired from the all-around to take care of her mental well-being.
Biles later returned to the Games, winning two medals in total. Personally, I have found his contribution to conversations about mental health just as inspiring as his athletic accomplishments.
Indeed, in her statement, she hoped that speaking out would have an even more seismic effect than winning multiple gold medals.
The impact of his actions has since resonated beyond the world of sport in all areas of society, including cybersecurity. It is an industry that continues to struggle with high levels of anxiety as a result of the events of the past eighteen months.
According to a 2021 report covered by ITProPortal, for example, 80% of cybersecurity staff said they faced more stress as a result of the pandemic than before. Likewise, a quarter of CISOs said their work affected their mental and / or physical health, as noted Cyberscoop.
Simultaneously, Beta News shared that 65% of professionals are considering leaving cybersecurity due to work-related stress.
I recently spoke with Matt Olney, director of threat intelligence and interdiction at Cisco Talos. He said to me: “In this moment when you feel lonely, you have never been less lonely. There are so many people feeling the same way you are right now.
All of this raises an important question. How can cybersecurity professionals follow Biles’ example to take care of their own mental well-being?
I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels like I have a personal investment in the cybersecurity industry. I feel connected to the fact that I am making a small contribution to help people feel more protected online. But when does our personal passion for the industry become a burden?
Simone Biles says this better than I do when she said in her statement on the Olympics: “It hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please others.”
Unpacking Sources of Safe Stress
In September 2021, Cisco asked Pulse to ask more than 100 directors, vice presidents and senior executives involved in IT security to share their thoughts on mental health. Half of those people said they experienced extreme stress or burnout while working in cybersecurity, but continued to work anyway. One in 10 of those decision makers said they needed to take extended leave to recuperate.
About a quarter (26%) of survey participants indicated that they were able to detect their stress early on and make changes, while 14% indicated that they had not experienced stress. extreme or burnout during their career.
When asked to explore the sources of their anxiety, security officials cited various factors. The main reason was the work-life balance at 62%. This was followed by an influx of threats, alerts and incidents as well as a shortage of staff and resources at 60% and 56%, respectively.
Less than half (36%) of those surveyed cited pressure from colleagues and management as a source of stress. Meanwhile, about a quarter (27%) of survey participants said a lack of self-care and a closed work culture (23%) contributed to their extreme anxiety and burnout.
We recently asked our social media followers what they do to prevent extreme stress and burnout. The first response was “Get outside”, followed closely by “Stay active” and “Turn to a hobby”.
Here are some more ideas from members of the infosec community on what works for them:
Tips on how security professionals can promote their mental health
Gary Hibberd | Professor of Cyber Communicate at Cyberfort Group
There is no point in saying “Don’t reply to emails on weekends” when you send emails on the weekends yourself! Encourage teams to get away from their devices, take short breaks during the day and on holidays. But you must do the same. Lead by example.
Pierce vasale | Network operations manager
Take a walk every day. It’s okay even if it’s inside your house, but you should try to get outside to get as much air as possible. Walking is not just about fresh air and exercise; it’s also a way to clear your mind. By focusing on the things you see on the outside, you change your state so that you can eventually return to your problems, worries, and concerns with a new state of mind.
If life gets overwhelming, do what my 7 year old does and take a deep breath; it won’t solve your problems, but it may pause the world for a few seconds while you recover.
Helene patton | CISO Consulting at Cisco
A culture of trust begins with the authenticity of the most influential person in the group – the “leader”. This person must lead by example, be vulnerable, show their fears and insecurities, and be human. No one can be 100% “on” all the time. A leader who shows his humanity shows those around him that it’s okay for them to be human too.
Sekara Hunter | Head of Information Systems Security at SiloSmashers
Make time for yourself. Find a hobby or something you enjoy such as playing a sport, learning a musical instrument, hiking, or traveling. Doing something you are passionate about can recharge your physical and emotional batteries.
Cybersecurity is a demanding and demanding industry. We’re in the best position to win when employees are happy and engaged, and when they have a good work-life balance.
Zoe Rose | Regional Manager and Information Security Provider at Canon EMEA
The best advice I received on life came from AJ Cook during #ILFest. The advice was to stop holding myself to such high standards. She told me to just be 100% there instead. If you are at home, focus on the house. If it’s work, focus on the work. Take the guilt out of feeling like you’re not doing enough. Just be there.
If we are to fix this problem now, we must listen and take action to mend our broken foundations together to reduce this threat to our industry and our personal lives.
Klaus Agnoletti | Senior Security Architect
Learn mindfulness. Not only does this help clear your head of stressful thoughts, it can also help you stay in balance. It’s important to take time, understand how you feel about yourself, and listen to your mind and body. If you become proficient in this area, the chances that you will forget that you are about to burn out are greatly reduced. There are some great apps that can help you, such as Calm and Free space.
Matthew Olney | Director of Talos Threat Intelligence and Interdiction at Cisco
If you are having difficulty, I highly recommend that you speak to a mental health specialist. This person is trained not only to understand what you are saying to them, but also to analyze it from the context in which you are telling them, that is, from an injured state. They can extract details and quickly get to the root cause. They can also tell you the name of the problem you might be having. As someone who has gone through this process, I have found that getting the “name” for this issue is very powerful. It means I have the context. I can learn more. I can be aware of it. Most importantly, I can take steps to manage and / or even fix it.
Take mental health seriously
The tips shared above highlight some of the ways organizations and cybersecurity professionals can work together to create a mentally healthy workplace.
For even more expert tips, stories and information, download Cisco’s new eBook, “Creating Safe Spaces: Leaders and Practitioners on Mental Health and Burnout Prevention. ”
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