The warning signs of burnout and how to deal with it

It’s easy for information security professionals to feel burnt out. From the constant stream of security alerts to the demands of senior management, it can be tempting for your team to throw up their hands and say “Enough!”

burnout warning signs

The consequences of such an action could prove dire for your business, though, so before you let another day of stress go by, read on to learn some warning signs and tips on how to deal with burnout. The goal is to get your team working at maximum capacity without overworking them.

Signs of burnout

Burnout is the word used to describe acute exhaustion when your work becomes overwhelming and too stressful. It can lead to poor performance, absenteeism, or resignations. It is a real problem in many industries, but it’s hugely prevalent in information security because of the long hours and high pressure.

Fortunately, burnout comes with early warning signs that you can spot and address. These include:

  • Anger at colleagues
  • A constant feeling of exhaustion that could manifest in team members getting lost in daydreams or even nodding off at their desk
  • Expressions of hopelessness or being overwhelmed by their responsibilities or current task
  • The team member isolating themselves from others, i.e., avoiding time out with colleagues or social events
  • Unhappiness in the role
  • An inability to stop and take breaks
  • An increase in working hours (coming in early, staying late, skipping lunch, or frequently emailing during out-of-office hours)

If any of your staff shows some of these symptoms, it’s time to act!

Taking steps to head off burnout

The first step is to try and understand the cause of the pressure. In many cases it will be a lack of control over one’s own workload, but there also may be external reasons for the team feeling exhausted (e.g., unsupportive management, unrealistic expectations).

Get some one-on-one time with the team members to check in on their workload and state of mind. By meeting with every team member, it won’t look like you’re singling anyone out and you can identify patterns in the responses. Have there been any resource changes recently? Have targets been increased? Is management paying closer attention to the team’s output? Perhaps there are too many meetings? All these things could be having an effect.

Once you have a clear understanding of the situation, you can devise a plan for tackling the impending burnout in your team.

The first action would be to work with them to reset expectations – both management’s and their own. If they can see that what they should be aiming for is realistic after all, the pressure should be eased, and they’ll regain a feeling of control. Things should then start to return to normal quickly.

Another key step is to reintroduce a better work/rest balance across the team, making breaks and hour-long lunches (away from the desk) mandatory – if needed. Taking regular breaks to recharge one’s batteries can do wonders for mental health as well as productivity. That break could be spent taking a walk outside, grabbing lunch with co-workers or even just shutting down for the day when it’s clear that no more work can be accomplished in a single shift. And the best way to enforce this work/rest balance is to show that you, as management, are doing it too.

You could go a step further and encourage the team to take up a new activity to support their mental health and wellbeing. This could be a little exercise in the morning before work starts or trying a new hobby.

If the workload and expectations on the team cannot be changed, then recruitment or upskilling may be required. Investing in training and coaching for your employees will help them to feel appreciated and become more productive. Likewise, new blood in the department could give the team the extra support and energy boost they need. Keep in mind, though, that there’s currently a major information security skills shortage, so if you’re lucky enough to find more worthy candidates than you need, keep in touch with those you couldn’t hire because they may become useful soon.

If the budget doesn’t allow for an increased headcount, perhaps investing in technology to automate some of the team’s most time-consuming processes could be the answer. One such task is the daily prioritization of new vulnerabilities picked by your scanners. This can be easily automated to help your team focus on the critical work of remediation.

If burnout is imminent – i.e., it it’s too late for the above steps – it might be wise to offer counseling services to the affected team members. This can take the form of one-on-one sessions or access to meditation apps or online programs.

It is possible to maintain a healthy balance in your team while still getting the work done. All you need to do is be aware of how things are going and make sure that everyone has time for themselves, too. Remember that it can take some people longer than others to recover from pressures, so don’t ignore these signs before they get worse!

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