For many people working in cybersecurity, employee mental health could be a bigger part of our days. Our jobs entail a lot of putting out fires and being hyper-vigilant to the hazards of the internet. Being constantly on guard against danger and participating in adrenaline-filled responses to emergencies puts stress on us. This can lead to lost productivity or even burnout, which is a security hazard in and of itself. How can we be more aware of stress and trauma, so we can keep ourselves and our employees functioning effectively?
Cybersecurity Stress For Good and Ill
Most of us would define stress as events that negatively impact us. But in reality, stress is a more neutral word than we might think. Positive events can also put stress on our bodies, and a certain amount of stress can actually be a positive thing for health.
As the saying goes, the dose makes the poison. Even water and oxygen are poisonous if you have too much. Most of us consider exercise and strong, positive emotions to be beneficial. In the amounts most of us experience, they absolutely are. A moderate amount of stress is necessary to help us maintain optimal health, such as in the case of exercise. It’s when we have too much stress that it can cause a variety of different health problems.
We need to be aware of both so-called ‘good’ stress (e.g. exciting projects or hobbies, invigorating personal interactions or exercise) and ‘bad’ stress (e.g. upsetting world news, an overly full schedule or unpleasant personal interactions) to get a complete sense of how much stress we’re putting on our bodies. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with stress at work or at home, it can be therapeutic to hit the gym or escape into your favorite hobbies. But be sure to balance this with restful activities like gentle stretching, meditation and getting a good night’s sleep.
Trauma and Stress While Working in Cybersecurity
Similar to common misunderstandings of stress, most of us think of trauma only in an extreme sense. Extreme events can definitely be traumatic, but those are not the only things that count. Trauma is, in essence, stress that reached a level that has impacted our ability to feel we are in control of the event.
Here are a few other examples of events that can be traumatic, which many of us have experienced:
Neglect or isolation
Accidents, such as car crashes, or accidental injuries
Witnessing an act of violence or death
Chronic or recurrent illness, surgery or other major medical events
Discrimination, such as racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia or transphobia
A chaotic home environment including conflict, divorce or substance abuse
Emotional or physical abuse
Loss of a loved one
Poverty or lack of essential services
Many of us are currently experiencing some form of isolation, as well as natural disasters in the form of catastrophic storms, wildfires or a worldwide pandemic. Traumatic experiences shape us in ways most of us don’t understand or even consider because they’re so common.
Mental Health Tips for Employees
Most people in the world at this point in time are probably very stressed. If you’re working in cybersecurity, you likely have an extra dose of stress as companies have gone partially or fully remote with very little advance notice. Much like in our day jobs, what we need to do to address the effects of stress and trauma require risk assessment and mitigation.
There are a variety of tools that can help boost employee mental health:
Regular visits with a primary health care provider
Regular visits with a mental/behavioral health practitioner
Daily fitness practices
Daily mindfulness practices
Better eating habits
Each person’s primary health care provider should be able to help them determine the risks to physical health, and they can help determine the specifics of their fitness and nutrition needs. Finding a good mental health provider is like finding a primary care provider for your brain; you form an ongoing team that helps them work with you to help identify risks to your mental health. They can also help you find mindfulness practices that are most effective for you over time.
Improving Employee Mental Health
If your job involves managing people right now, you may be worried about employee mental health. You may be noticing differences in employees’ behavior such as decreased productivity or energy, an increase in negative or argumentative comments or mistakes in their work. Address these changes with a sense of compassion. Check in with your employees and ask how they are coping, and if there is anything you can do to help.
Creating a sense of psychological safety, and talking privately with your employees can help uncover things that can be changed such that it will help your group work more smoothly even during less challenging times. There may be unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles they’re facing, or there may be a need for extra training, or perhaps communication can be improved. You may need to temporarily shift work tasks or priorities, in order to allow your employees to continue producing good work without burning out.
Having a boss who listens and acts to address problems can improve employee mental health by helping your people feel a better sense of control. And as we discussed earlier, lack of control is the thing that turns a stressful event into a traumatic one.
How to Help Employees Stay Calm
You should be modeling good work/life balance and good employee mental health by taking regular breaks in the workday, and by scheduling time off. Encourage your employees to take breaks throughout the day, and make sure they’re able to schedule regular time off. Then, make sure they can really take that time fully away from work. Work with them to ensure someone is adequately covering their absence so that they don’t have to work twice as hard to catch up when they get back. Now may also be a good time to discuss flexible working options that can improve employee mental health, as many people are taking on more child and elder-care duties.
It’s also a great time to be extra generous with gratitude and praise for your employees, both privately and throughout the company. To get the best effect, you can recognize their efforts in several ways. Verbal praise can and should be anything from saying “thank you” more often, to being more specific about how their work has helped or affected you. You can also offer things such as gift cards for groceries or a favorite online shop, or have a meal delivered to them from a local shop.
Making Employee Mental Health a Priority
Whether or not we realize it, most people working in cybersecurity have fairly stressful jobs. This is true even if we’re not in a high-adrenaline emergency response group. While we may get a great deal of satisfaction from feeling like we’re saving the day, doing something worth being proud of, or just helping make the world a safer place, we are fighting a problem that can often feel unstoppable. This doesn’t have to lead to poor employee mental health if we’re able to assess our personal risks and talk with each other about what we need.
Lysa Myers began her tenure in malware research labs in the weeks before the Melissa virus outbreak in 1999. She watched as the internet grew from small, loc...