Mental Health Awareness Week: The relentless “virus” impacting cybersecurity professionals

Feature by Special correspondent

Experts discuss the stresses of cybersecurity and the impact it can have on their mental health, and what business leaders can do to encourage team members and help to relieve stress and burnout.

Constant alerts and notifications, under resourced and overworked. Just a few of the many factors cybersecurity professionals contend with on a daily basis, irrespective of current times.

It could be argued that stress in the workplace is a pandemic in itself, unavoidable and often all encompassing. In 2019, the Health and Safety Executive, the UK’s health and safety watchdog, reported a record number of 602,000 cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety, which accounted for 44 percent of all work-related ill health cases. The main factors cited by respondents were workload pressures and lack of support.

These are familiar scenes in cybersecurity, where pressures on chief information security officers (CISOs) and their teams are at a consistent high due to new and evolving threats and increasing cyberattacks. Five industry experts discuss the stresses of the job and the impact it can have on their mental health, and what business leaders can do to encourage team members and help to relieve stress and burnout.

New level of unprecedented pressure

Security teams face serious pressures with limited resources. Sam Humphries, security strategist at Exabeam, explains: “A data breach can happen at any moment, demanding the attention and expertise of cybersecurity professionals. It’s an ‘always on’ profession, and there is an unspoken expectation for security teams to work excessive hours, but this leaves many with the inability to ‘switch off’ when they leave the office.

“Current events have introduced a whole new level of unprecedented pressure. We have seen the number of data breaches, compromised video-conferencing and Covid-19 related phishing scams soar. In addition, working from home for many individuals also means balancing parenting and home-schooling with their professional responsibilities. In any job, it would be easy to feel overwhelmed by the situation. For our friends in security, it’s a formidable task.”

Jen Locklear, chief talent officer, ConnectWise, agrees that the current pandemic has only fuelled stress and added to workloads. “According to Gallup, even before the world suddenly changed due to COVID-19, two-thirds of employees sometimes or often felt burnt out by their jobs. However, it’s clear that with the increased emotional stress brought on by a global pandemic, paired with a remote work transition for many, it has never been more important for company leaders to check in on their staff.

“We’re collectively going through this for the first time together, and employee wellness is crucial. It’s important to ensure employees are engaged and motivated at a time when companies are announcing hiring freezes and the job market is slowing down. It’s one thing to have a disengaged employee leave your company and another to have them disengage and stay; their mood affects everyone else’s, even digitally.”

Embrace technology and stay connected

For many organisations there has been an adjustment to a new working style, moving from their office-based environment to home. Krishna Subramanian, COO at Komprise, advises: "To help employees be as efficient as possible when working remotely, it's crucial they have secure access to the data they need to do their jobs. With so many employees connecting from home, keeping data safe and secure at all times is a much bigger concern, so generating a cyber-resilient safe copy of your business data in a separate location that is not subject to attacks is very important. Implementing data management solutions that can help you create what is essentially an "air-gap" cyber resiliency solution to protect your data will give peace-of-mind to your employees, and help them focus on the job at hand.”

In terms of security, the home workspace will not have the same defence as the office, therefore it is imperative organisations ensure their cyber teams are well equipped for their work-from-home environment. Alan Conboy, office of the CTO at Scale Computing, says: “To help reduce the security drawbacks of isolated workers, organisations should look to virtual desktop solutions as part of their DR plan, if they aren’t already in use. These solutions can keep workers connected from a variety of devices while ensuring sensitive and business-critical data safely resides on the business’ data centre storage. As budget concerns continue to rise, look for simple, scalable and highly available infrastructure that can help deploy VDI solutions more easily, more quickly and at a lower cost than competing solutions. This will help remove some of the stress professionals and organisations are facing during these challenging times."

Take note of forward thinking attitudes

Liam Butler, AVP at SumTotal, says that although there is a more accepting attitude towards mental illness today, we are still a long way from treating mental health the same as physiological health. “We need to help to reduce the secrecy and stigma surrounding mental health issues, encourage employees to step forward if they are having mental health problems and make employers reconsider their own attitudes to mental health related illnesses.”

Butler commends organisations that have a positive, forward thinking attitude: “Take Olark, a US-based tech company, one of its employees made a bold move to explain her absence from work by highlighting her own focus on mental health. Rather than the typical OOO email, they simply wrote, ‘I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 percent.’ The company’s CEO got involved. Not only did he praise her for setting such a noteworthy example, he thanked her for reminding him of the importance of using sick days for mental health and helping to remove the stigma associated with mental health.”

Employers need to lead by example, implementing their own policies and training around mental health and engaging positively with employees, so they feel empowered to speak out. Butler concludes: “Ultimately, mental health needs to be brought out of the shadows and into the spotlight of the boardroom, so that executives can ensure their employees have access to the resources and support they need.”

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