How to prevent burnout within cybersecurity teams

Burnout is, unfortunately, a very current concern within the cyber security industry. A 2022 report by ThreatConnect  found that the current rate of turnover in the industry is 20%, with 55% saying stress levels have increased in the last 6 months, and ‘high stress’ stated as one of the top 3 reasons to leave a cyber security job. In fact, over a third of Security Managers are considering quitting in the next 6 months.  So how can you prevent burnout within your own teams and employees?

Signs of Burnout

Mind  explain that if you are experiencing burnout, ‘you may feel completely exhausted, have little motivation for your job, feel irritable, or anxious and you may see a dip in your work performance. Some people also experience physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches, or have trouble sleeping.’

What do you need to be looking out for in your employees?

One of the first warning signs for burnout is sustained increased workload. If you know that your team are under higher levels of pressure, and these have been maintained for a period of time, you should be vigilant for the symptoms of burnout that might follow. Other causes of burnout can be feeling a loss of control over their role, the culture of the organization, lack of resources and lack of support, both professionally and personally.

Burnout can cause your staff to become disengaged, seeming less productive, distancing themselves from the team and potentially turning up late or leaving early. You might notice a lower quality of work and higher absence rates.

Physical symptoms can include low mood, headaches, stomach aches, trouble sleeping and consequent fatigue. If you notice your employees looking more tired and withdrawn, having trouble focusing, taking more sick time, changing their eating patterns, becoming irritable and/or displaying a lot of negativity, it’s possible they’re experiencing burnout. There are plenty of things you can do to alleviate the symptoms, but you’ll also need to consider the root cause.

Short-Term Solutions

If you’ve spotted any of the signs of burnout in your team, open communication is key. Talk to your team members as soon as possible, as you might be able to improve the situation before full burnout is reached. We should first consider the short-term solutions you can implement to help alleviate the symptoms of burnout.

It might seem like a simple solution, but the work environment is incredibly important. Adding some décor, plants, comfortable seating and making sure there are adequate areas for both independent and teamwork can improve how your employees feel at work. You can also try and ensure their home office environment is set up suitably. Having a designated break area that is separate from the working area is also key, so staff can step away from their desks to de-stress on their breaks.

Sometimes a change of scenery can help break a cycle of stress, so using techniques like walking meetings with small groups, or work lunches, can bring some diversity into the work day and encourage more engagement.

Encouraging some recovery time can make the world of difference. Making sure your staff use all of their paid time off (PTO), and trying to keep this at regular intervals is very important for their decompression and recovery from work stress. If you know an employee has been travelling for work, ensure they aren’t given back-to-back trips so they can have some time off, or settle back into the office before they start over again. Supporting your employees to take mental health days when needed can also help. However, this is essentially a plaster, however, and some time off won’t fix the root of the problem. You might need to delve a little deeper to prevent burnout being a persistent concern.

Long-Term Solutions

Monitoring the workloads of your team closely, and scheduling work appropriately could prevent stress levels at work from coming to fruition. This is often easier said than done, as you might have little control over the workload given to your team or department. However, encouraging frequent, open discussions about workload with your team can mean you stay up to date with how they’re coping, and take this to a more senior level if needs be. You are an advocate for your team, so if organizational-level changes need to be made, this can start by filtering through you.

A good work-life balance could be a long-term solution for preventing burnout. Each individual has their own responsibilities inside and outside of work, so treating flexibility on an individual basis could be a useful technique. Allowing a change in work hours to accommodate the school run or offering a hybrid work model could be very beneficial in reducing the likelihood of burnout. If your organization has fixed strategies and policies for flexible options, make sure this is clear during the hiring process, so you can manage the expectations of your team from an early stage.

Access to wellness programs and support is one of the key resources an organization can invest in, so if you have them at your company, make sure your employees are at least aware of them, and encouraged to use them. Again, frequent, open communication with your staff members allows an opportunity for your team to tell you how they’re feeling, so you can figure out what the best resources for them might be. Resilience training for staff can also be a useful investment.

It might be a culture issue that’s causing burnout-level stress within your organization. Culture is a multi-faceted factor, covering attitudes and behavior within an organization, and how it treats its employees. If there is a negative culture at work, or within your own team, addressing this is imperative to retaining staff and preventing burnout. To encourage a positive work culture within your team, you could try to ensure there is good communication, frequent employee recognition and that your team members are clear about their goals at work, their responsibilities, their purpose within the organization, and their path of progression.

As a final thought, it’s important to recognize that you also need to lead by example. Chances are, if someone in your team is burnt out, you’re vulnerable to similar stress levels and high workloads. Self-care is incredibly important, so how can you expect your team to look after themselves if you don’t practice this yourself?

There is no one-size-fits-all solution if you’re experiencing burnout within your team, but action needs to be taken if you’re losing valued cyber security professionals from your organization.

Jamal Elmellas

Jamal Elmellas is Chief Operating Officer for Focus-on-Security, the cyber security recruitment agency, where he oversees selection and recruitment services. He previously founded and was CTO of a successful security consultancy where he delivered secure ICT services for government and private sector organisations. Jamal has almost 20 years’ experience in the field and is an ex CLAS consultant, Cisco and Checkpoint certified practitioner.

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