The Simmering Crisis: IT Burnout and How to Beat It

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We explore IT burnout: its causes, signs, and solutions for maintaining a healthy, efficient tech environment.

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Episode Transcript

There is a potential crisis brewing in your business today, one that threatens every aspect of your operations and the security of your data – the epidemic of IT department exhaustion. This crisis is deeply rooted in the evolving nature of technology management and the overwhelming demands placed on those who maintain and secure our digital infrastructures.

The state of the IT industry brings to mind the great language from “The Lord of the Rings”: too little butter spread over too much bread. This vivid imagery paints a clear picture of the current state of cybersecurity and IT sectors – fields that have rapidly expanded and modernized over the last few decades. Yet, there is a persistent shortage of skilled professionals in the tech industry, a gap that has only grown with the need to not only expand and adopt new technologies but also to modernize and secure them.

The Root Causes of the IT Burnout Crisis

In the past, security was often an afterthought, as most systems were isolated and the major concern was physical security. However, the interconnected nature of modern technology systems has brought security to the forefront. In the early days of the internet, there were limited threats, with infamous hackers like Kevin Mitnick being among the few capable of significant breaches. Contrast this with today’s internet landscape, where anyone can access a wide array of offensive security tools and exploit a much larger number of targets, like online banking systems, which were not as prevalent in 1987.

The result: physically and mentally exhausted IT departments that are routinely understaffed and overworked.

The Telltale Signs of Burnout in IT

Burnout is not just a buzzword but a tangible reality in most IT departments. One need only look to the presence of IT staff online outside of regular business hours to see this in action. This extended presence often stems from a sense of loyalty and dedication. However, this well-intentioned commitment can lead to prolonged working hours, encroaching into personal time, and eventually, to a state of burnout.

Other evidence of burnout can be seen in a decline in personal care and attention to things like personal appearance. Exhausted employees are also more susceptible to making small mistakes in both routine tasks and tasks that require high levels of precision and concentration to be done correctly. Ultimately, the clearest evidence of burnout in your IT department is also the one that’s the most difficult to fix – when exhausted employees simply quit.

The Underlying Causes of IT Burnout

A significant cause of burnout is the increased complexity and interconnectedness of IT systems, compounded by a lack of adequate resources. The analogy was drawn between the growth of a city and the growth of a company’s technical needs. Just as a growing city requires more infrastructure and resources, a growing company needs more technical resources and capacity to handle the burgeoning workload. The failure to recognize and invest in these needs can lead to employees shouldering an unsustainable burden, eventually leading to burnout.

A Shift in the Workload

There has also been a critical shift in the workload and work culture within IT departments, especially post-2020. The pandemic and the ensuing rise in remote work have drastically changed how IT departments operate. It’s no longer just about building and protecting the wall around the company’s data and systems; it’s now about poking holes in that wall to facilitate remote work, thereby creating new challenges in maintaining security and operational efficiency.

Further, with the advent of cloud services like AWS, Azure, and GCP, the demands on IT professionals have multiplied. These roles now require diverse expertise, including knowledge in areas like Kubernetes, PowerShell, and cloud administration. However, as the responsibilities grow, the support and resources often do not keep pace, leading to an unsustainable workload for many.

Incident Response is Usually the Night Shift

As IT and cybersecurity roles expand, so do the working hours and expectations. Cybersecurity teams now find themselves on call 24/7, 365 days a year, dealing with threats that do not adhere to a nine-to-five schedule. This constant state of high alert and readiness takes a significant toll, manifesting in physical and mental fatigue, reduced work quality, and, crucially, an increased risk of overlooking crucial details in security protocols.

The global nature of threats means that cybersecurity teams are always on the defensive, often during times when their numbers are thinnest, such as weekends and holidays. The pressure to maintain constant vigilance against these ever-present and evolving threats further exacerbates the burnout crisis.

The Misunderstood Nature of Cybersecurity Roles

Some have suggested that burnout in IT may also be related to what has been called a cybersecurity “skills gap.” However, it is actually a common misconception that all cybersecurity jobs require extensive experience and high levels of technical skill. The reality is more nuanced. While certain positions do demand a high skill level, numerous entry points into cybersecurity don’t require such extensive experience. These roles include areas like Endpoint Security Management, Server Security, and Governance, Risk Management, and Compliance (GRC). These positions provide an opportunity for individuals to build a foundation in cybersecurity without the need for a heavy technical background.

On the flip side of the “skills gap” equation is what can be seen as problems with experience demands beyond what is needed in a role and excessive gatekeeping by those already in the industry. Often, entry-level positions demand qualifications and experience that are disproportionate to the role, creating a significant barrier to entry. For instance, requiring a PhD in cybersecurity and numerous costly certifications for a junior role is not just unrealistic but also contributes to the employment gap by making these positions inaccessible to many potentially qualified candidates. In other situations, experienced professionals set high barriers for new entrants. This practice not only hinders the growth of the cybersecurity workforce but also overlooks the fact that every expert started as a beginner. By not providing the opportunity for gradual skill development, the industry inadvertently contributes to its own staffing shortages.

The Consequences of IT Burnout

A report titled “A False Sense of Cybersecurity: How Feeling Safe Can Sabotage Your Business” highlights that over half of the organizations acknowledge their security staff is challenged, stressed, frustrated, and exhausted. The same study shows a worrying trend among cybersecurity leaders, where over 40% feel their teams have little to no capability to detect and respond to potential threats.

This is not merely about lacking the right tools; it’s a profound shortage of expertise and time, primarily due to burnout. When the people responsible for safeguarding our digital environments are overstretched, the very fabric of cybersecurity weakens.

The consequences of IT burnout extend beyond the individual to impact the broader organization and, by extension, the global digital landscape. On one hand, a lack of capable IT personnel in your company will certainly impact your ability to do business. Imagine being unable to connect to your company’s network remotely, or having cascading failures in the company devices your employees use. IT keeps your business running.

More worrying for everyone else, though, when cybersecurity professionals are burned out, they’re less capable of effectively responding to incidents. The lack of capable IT and cybersecurity personnel leaves businesses and their customers vulnerable. Hackers exposing the data of your customers and employees is not just an operational problem, it’s an existential threat to your business.

Tackling IT Burnout: Strategies for a Healthier Company Environment

So how can we address burnout in a constructive way that doesn’t require devoting a company’s entire bottom line to hiring new personnel? By doing three things: 1) keep an open dialogue about workload and burnout, 2) practice effective resource management, and 3) develop a culture of respect within and beyond IT departments.

Open Communication: The First Step in Managing Burnout

The importance of open and honest communication within IT teams cannot be stressed enough as a fundamental step in combating burnout. IT Team leaders should actively engage with their team members, understanding their capacity and workload. Those same leaders must also feel empowered to accurately report what they’re told to non-IT managers and executives.

This approach not only helps in identifying burnout early but also fosters a supportive environment where workload can be redistributed effectively. Recognizing when a team member is at capacity and stepping in to alleviate their burden is crucial for preventing burnout.

Another way communication can reduce burnout is through a shift from individual projects to a more team-oriented approach. In this collaborative environment, when one project falls behind, the entire team comes together to provide support. The workload is evenly distributed, and no single member is left struggling alone.

Resource Management and Policy Adherence

Adherence to IT policies and procedures is another critical area. Seemingly small actions, like using work devices for personal purposes, can add to IT workload significantly. This misuse of technology not only poses security risks but also burdens IT personnel with additional, unnecessary tasks.

Following company policies regarding acceptable use, password/credentials management, and disaster recovery can make all aspects of the IT department’s job a bit less stressful and cumbersome. Understanding that work equipment and software are for professional use only goes a long way in preventing security incidents and additional workload for IT teams.

Encouraging Responsibility and Respect

Finally, make sure that everyone treats IT personnel with the professionalism and respect that they deserve. Reminding people that adhering to company policies and procedures benefits everyone, because the results of improper use of company equipment, accidental downloading of malware, or the use of compromised credentials, regardless of anything else, always include increased workload for IT.

We’re here to help make the complex language of cybersecurity understandable. So if there are topics or issues that you’d like Ryan and I to break down in an episode, send us an email at info@fearlessparanoia.com or reach out to us on Facebook or LinkedIn. For more information about today’s episode, be sure to check out Fearless Paranoia.com where you’ll find a full transcript as well as links to helpful resources and any research and reports discussed during this episode. While you’re there, check out our other posts and podcasts as well as additional helpful resources for learning about cybersecurity.

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to make cybersecurity understandable, digestable, and guide you through being able to understand what you and your business need to focus on in order to get the most benefit for your cybersecurity spend.

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