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During the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, gymnastics legend Simone Biles surprised everyone when she withdrew from the individual all-around competition to take care of her mental well-being.
Biles later returned to the Games, winning two medals overall. I personally found her contribution to the conversations around mental health just as inspiring as her sporting achievements.
Indeed, in her statement she hoped that speaking out would have an even more seismic effect than winning multiple gold medals.
The impact of her actions has since resonated outward beyond the athletic world to every realm of society—including cybersecurity. This is an industry still struggling with elevated anxiety levels following the events of the past eighteen months.
According to a 2021 report covered by ITProPortal, for instance, 80% of cybersecurity personnel said they’re dealing with more stress in the wake of the pandemic than before it. Similarly, a quarter of CISOs said that their job has affected their mental and/or physical health, as noted by Cyberscoop.
Simultaneously, Beta News shared that 65% of pros are thinking about leaving cybersecurity due to work-related stress.
I recently spoke with Matt Olney, Director of Threat Intelligence and Interdiction at Cisco Talos. He told me, “At this time when you’re feeling alone, you’ve never been less alone. There are so many people feeling the same way you do right now.”
This all 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 alone in feeling like I have a personal investment in the cybersecurity industry. I feel connected to the fact that I’m making a tiny contribution to helping people feel more protected online. But at what point does our personal passion for the industry become more like a burden?
Simone Biles relates this better than me when she said in her Olympics statement, “It hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”
Unpacking Sources of Security Stress
In September 2021, Cisco commissioned Pulse to ask over 100 directors, vice presidents, and C-Level executives involved in IT security to share their thoughts on mental health. Half of those individuals revealed that they’ve experienced extreme stress or burnout while working in cybersecurity but that they kept working anyway. One in 10 of those decision makers said that they needed to take extended time off to recover.
Approximately a quarter (26%) of survey participants noted that they were able to catch their stress early on and make changes, while 14% indicated that they had not experienced extreme stress or burnout in their careers.
When asked to explore the sources of their anxiety, security leaders cited various factors. The chief reason was inadequate work-life balance at 62%. This was followed by keeping up with an influx of threats, alerts, and incidents as well as a shortage of staff and resources at 60% and 56%, respectively.
Fewer than half (36%) of respondents cited pressure from colleagues and management as a source of stress. Meanwhile, roughly a quarter (27%) of survey participants said that a lack of self-care and a closed work culture (23%) had helped to contribute to their extreme anxiety and burnout.
We recently asked our social media followers what they do to prevent extreme stress and burnout. The top answer was ‘Get outside’, closely followed by ‘Staying active’ and ‘Turning to a hobby’.
Here are some more insights from people in the infosec community on what works for them:
Advice on How Security Pros Can Promote Their Mental Health
Gary Hibberd | Professor of Communicating Cyber at Cyberfort Group
It’s no good saying, “Don’t answer emails on weekends,” when you yourself are sending emails on weekends! Encourage teams to take time away from their devices, short breaks in the day and holidays. But you must do the same. Lead by example.
Pierce Vasale | Networks Operation Manager
Get a daily walk in. It’s okay even if it’s inside your house, but you should try to go outside for fresh air as much as possible. The walk isn’t just about fresh air and exercise; it’s also a way to clear your mind. As you focus on the things you see outside, you shift your state so that you can eventually come back to your problems, worries, and concerns with a new mindset.
If life is becoming overwhelming, do what my 7-year-old does and take a deep breath; it won’t fix your problems, but it can pause the world for just a few seconds while you recover.
Helen Patton | Advisory CISO at Cisco
A trusting culture starts with authenticity from the most influential person in the group – the “leader.” This person needs to lead by positive example as well as to be vulnerable, show fears and insecurities, and be human. No one can be 100% “on” all the time. A leader who shows their humanity shows those around them that it’s okay for them to be human, too.
Hunter Sekara | Lead Information Systems Security Officer at SiloSmashers
Allow time for yourself. Find a hobby or something you enjoy such as playing a sport, learning a musical instrument, hiking, or traveling. Doing something that you are passionate about can recharge your physical and emotional batteries.
Cybersecurity is a challenging and demanding industry. We are in the best position to win when employees are happy and engaged as well as when they have a proper work/life balance.
Zoë Rose | Regional and Supplier Information Security Lead at Canon EMEA
The best advice I received about life was from AJ Cook during #ILFest. The advice was to stop holding myself to such high standards. She told me to simply be 100% present instead. If you’re at home, be focused on home. If it’s work, be focused on work. Remove the guilt of feeling like you’re not doing enough. Just be there.
If we want to fix this problem right now, we must listen and take actions to fix our broken foundation together to reduce this threat to our industry and personal lives.
Klaus Agnoletti | Senior Security Architect
Learn mindfulness. Not only does it help to empty your head of stressful thoughts, but it can also help you to stay in balance. It’s important to make time, understand how you feel in yourself, and listen to your mind and body. If you become skilled in that, the chances of you overlooking that you are about to burn out reduce massively. There are some great apps out there that can help such as Calm and Headspace.
Matthew Olney | Director of Talos Threat Intelligence and Interdiction at Cisco
If you’re struggling, speaking to a mental health specialist is something I highly recommend. That person is trained to not only understand what you’re telling them but to also parse it out from the context through which you’re telling them, i.e., from a wounded state. They can extract details and quickly get to the root cause. They can also tell you the name of whatever issue it is you might be experiencing. As someone who’s gone through this process, I’ve found that getting the ‘name’ of that issue is very powerful. It means I have context. I can learn about it. I can be aware of it. And most importantly of all, I can take steps to manage and/or even resolve it.
Taking Mental Health Seriously
The advice shared above highlights some of the ways organizations and cybersecurity professionals can work together to create a workplace that’s conductive to mental health.
For even more expert tips, stories, and insights, download Cisco’s new eBook, “Creating Safe Spaces: Leaders and Practitioners on Mental Health and Avoiding Burnout.”
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