Melanie Armstrong joined Mimecast in May 2020 as a Digital Marketing Specialist. She has a wealth of experience in providing impactful marketing solutions across a variety of industries and clients. Melanie takes great pride in her work which has seen her recognised through the Media Federation of Australia and Pro Print Emerging 50 awards. She enjoys helping businesses to stay informed about cybersecurity in Australia, and how to remain resilient in this space.
Understanding the causes and cures for burnout in cybersecurity
The statistics surrounding CISO burnout demonstrate that this is an issue that goes all the way to the top.
Research from Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) suggests that, on average, a CISO lasts just two to four years on the job before moving on to another position. A prime reason for this could well be attributed to burnout and mental health.
Recognising when you or a teammate is stressed, and acting on it by speaking to them or raising the topic with a team lead, can help nip the issue in the bud before it spirals out of control and leads to burnout. Not all people are stressed by the same tasks or scenarios and stress can also come from external sources and be compounded by work. Recognising when someone is stressed has been made more difficult post COVID-19, when the majority of people are still working remotely, however there are a few signs to look out for.
Understanding the factors behind the burnout
Burnout can be hard to identify because everyone reacts differently to it. But even so, any unusual change in behaviour can be a sign of something bigger simmering beneath the surface. For example, if someone who used to have their video on for team meetings now suddenly keeps their video off, or used to typically contribute a lot to conversations but has become quiet, or previously had an optimistic outlook on most projects but has become more pessimistic - these could be signs that this person may be stressed.
Occasional stress is a normal part of any job. A typical example of stress is a project that you need to complete in 2 weeks, but you would usually assign 3 weeks to deliver it. In order to complete the project on time, you have to work longer hours, manage expectations and spend less time working on tasks you like. However, the end is in sight: you know that at a given time this stress will cease, and you can plan for a way to celebrate or relax once it is completed.
Burnout occurs from stress that has no foreseeable end in sight and feels overwhelming. This may be because of an endless wave of back-to-back projects like the one mentioned above, or it may come from external sources, or could even be inherent to the responsibilities of your work.
Cybersecurity is unique in that the threat of cyber breaches is literally never-ending. As a security professional, you may feel like the responsibility for protecting a business from a cyber breach rests entirely on your shoulders. However, no system can be 100% secure. When a breach does occur those responsible for implementing security are suddenly thrust into the spotlight. Many cyber workers fear that they will be unfairly blamed, heavily reprimanded or possibly even fired. Even if there has never been a breach, it’s a sword that continually hangs over the head of many cybersecurity professionals, including CISOs.
Improving your mental resilience
Burnout can be difficult to manage once it’s taken root, and prevention is still the best cure. But for those dealing with its effects, understanding stress and developing ways to create resilience through mental health self care has proven to be the most effective way to manage it.
One great way to do this is to practice positive psychology. Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, developed five core elements of psychological well-being and happiness known as PERMA.
P - is for positive emotions. It’s about proactively looking for the good in things and improving your optimism by viewing your past, present, and future through a constructive lens. This might involve focusing on how you will feel when you solve a problem, instead of thinking about how you feel when working on it. By simply choosing to look at things in a different way, you will start doing things in a different way.
E - stands for engagement. Activities that meet our need for engagement flood the body with positive neurotransmitters and hormones that elevate our sense of well-being. First, discover an activity that allows you to feel ‘flow’, a state in which you are so involved with a task that you hardly notice the time flying by. This might be playing computer games, surfing, meditating, walking the dog or perhaps building a lego set. Next, set aside some time for that activity. Schedule it in your calendar like you would schedule a meeting if you need to.
R - is for relationships. Humans are naturally social beings, we crave connections. Creating authentic relationships with those around you and putting time aside to spend with family and friends is a key ingredient to overall joy. Strong relationships also provide support in difficult times that require resilience.
M - is for meaning. It's about finding purpose in what you're doing. Some people find meaning in their religion, others from volunteering and many find it in their profession. Try to zoom out from your day-to-day tasks and look for a larger purpose behind your actions that you can be proud of.
A - stands for accomplishment. Completing a task or figuring out a problem feels great and our body rewards us with a hit of dopamine for doing it. But before you can achieve or complete a task you must first set a goal. This can be as simple as changing a lightbulb or as complex as completing a long-term implementation project. With large projects, it’s important to break the project down into small, achievable goals. Try setting one or two goals for yourself each day and reward yourself with a quick break while you enjoy the dopamine hit.
Mental well-being is a key component of your ability to do your job well, and deserves to be a priority in your daily life. By practicing the PERMA method, psychologists have found that you can feel more fulfilled, happier and most importantly - more prepared to deal with the everyday stresses of modern life. Practicing Positive psychology allows you to pause, to gain perspective and see the light at the end of the tunnel, instead of feeling so overwhelmed that the only way out is to burnout.