The Importance of Discerning Between Job Burnout and PTSD

On February 6, an article was published on CSO Online that attempted to detail a previously unheard-of phenomenon called “Cybersecurity PTSD”. It is important for us to discuss the key differences between PTSD and burnout in order for us to avoid making light of a serious psychological disorder.

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[Note: After a story about "Cybersecurity PTSD" was published on February 6 to CSO Online, Salted Hash received a number of comments related to it. Magen Wu has written a rebuttal to that article, which Salted Hash has agreed to host. The words that follow are her own, and reflect her views and opinions. -Steve Ragan, Salted Hash.]

On February 6, an article was published on CSO Online [archive of the original post] that attempted to detail a previously unheard-of phenomenon called “Cybersecurity PTSD”. At no point in the article is this term defined, nor its symptoms discussed.

The article ends with a note that this issue is evidently a “real, growing, and troubling problem” that “no one is talking about” (Oltsik, 2018). I’d argue that the reason that no one is talking about the problem is because it doesn’t exist. It is important for us to discuss the key differences between PTSD and burnout in order for us to avoid making light of a serious psychological disorder.

The first half of Oltsik’s article states that there is a shortage in cybersecurity professionals that is being felt across multiple industries, citing the results of his company’s research.

This much is absolutely true and can be backed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which states that employment of information security analysts (a catch-all term used by the bureau) is projected to grow at 28% in the next ten or so years (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018).

It’s in attempting to speak to the impact of this skills shortage that the article veers into confusion, speculation, and hyperbole. I should pause here and mention that I am not a mental health professional.

My interest in the subject is born of the experiences I have seen first-hand among my community peers, and bred through intense academic study, as indicated by my references throughout this article. Burnout, in particular, is a phenomenon I have both witnessed and investigated extensively, and I am a strong proponent for building greater understanding and better responses to it to protect those working in the security field.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a diagnosis that is made when an individual experiences, witnesses, or even has indirect exposure to a traumatic event (APA, 2017). These events can take on many forms such as witnessing or hearing about the sudden or violent passing of a relative, violent assaults, etc. and can have lasting effects like intrusive thoughts that get in the way of someone living an otherwise normal or healthy life, actively having to avoid reminders of the event, negative or distorted thoughts and feelings, and arousal or reactive symptoms such as angry outbursts or difficulty sleeping or concentrating.

It is also important to note that it is possible to experience Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS), which is “the natural, consequent behaviors and emotions resulting from knowledge about a traumatizing event experienced by a significant other. It is the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person” (Figley, 1999).

Burnout, on the other hand, is “a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who do ‘people work’ of some kind” (Maslach, 1982). There are two inventories that are used by psychology professionals to assess whether someone is experiencing burnout and to what degree, but there are two key areas that are common across both: exhaustion and disengagement.

Disengagement is when someone experiences “negative, cynical attitudes and behaviors toward one’s work in general” and exhaustion is characterized by “general feelings of emptiness, overtaxing from work, a strong need to rest, and a state of physical exhaustion” (Demerouti et al., 2003).

On the outside, there seems to be little to no overlap between PTSD and burnout, but there have been several studies that discuss the relationship between the symptoms of burnout and PTSD (Jo et al., 2018, Katsavouni et al., 2016, and Adler et al., 2017), and one study that found a positive correlation between those who suffer from both PTSD and burnout for earthquake victims (Zhou et al., 2017).

What does this mean?

One doesn’t necessarily lead to the other, although STS can increase the likelihood of burnout (Shoji et al, 2015) and we have to be very careful as a community how we approach these very sensitive subjects. There are a few professions where individuals can suffer from burnout related to their PTSD or STS, but academic studies limit those professions to some of the following, where regular traumatic events are witnessed: firefighters, EMS, military personnel, police, prison guards, and doctors.

As yet, no published academic studies have found information security or technology, in and of itself, results in PTSD.

I highly recommend that while we continue to explore the impact our chosen profession has to our physical, mental, and emotional health, we take extreme caution when discussing actual syndromes and diagnoses, since the majority of us are not mental health professionals and do not have professional experience or training in that arena.

There is already a lack of understanding of these incredibly sensitive issues, and this can only be worsened by hyperbolic, uninformed discourse masquerading as data-driven expertise. Rather than helping build better support, this kind of approach can only increase the very real psychological and emotional pain that those diagnosed with PTSD suffer.

Sources:

  • Adler, A. B., Adrian, A. L., Hemphill, M., Scaro, N. H., Sipos, M. L., & Thomas, J. L. (2017). Professional Stress and Burnout in U.S. Military Medical Personnel Deployed to Afghanistan. Military Medicine, 182(3/4), e1669-e1676. doi:10.7205/MILMED-D-16-00154

  • American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC

  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Information Security Analysts. (visited January 30, 2018).

  • Demerouti, E., Bakker, A. B., Vardakou, I., & Kantas, A. (2003). The convergent validity of two burnout instruments: A multitrait-multimethod analysis. European Journal Of Psychological Assessment, 19(1), 12-23. doi:10.1027//1015-5759.19.1.12

  • Figley, C. R. (1999). Compassion fatigue: Toward a new understanding of the costs of caring. In B. H. Stamm (Ed.), Secondary traumatic stress: Self-care issues for clinicians, researchers, and educators (2nd ed., pp. 3-28). Lutherville, MD: Sidran

  • Jo, I., Lee, S., Sung, G., Kim, M., Lee, S., Park, J., & Lee, K. (2018). Relationship between burnout and PTSD symptoms in firefighters: the moderating effects of a sense of calling to firefighting. International Archives Of Occupational & Environmental Health, 91(1), 117-123. doi:10.1007/s00420-017-1263-6

  • Katsavouni, F., Bebetsos, E., Malliou, P., & Beneka, A. (2016). The relationship between burnout, PTSD symptoms and injuries in firefighters. Occupational Medicine, 66(1), 32-37. doi:10.1093/occmed/kqv144

  • Maslach, C. 1982. Burnout: The cost of caring. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

  • Oltsik, J. (2018) Cybersecurity PTSD affects many security professionals. CSOOnline,  retrieved February 8, 2018.

  • Shoji, K., Lesnierowska, M., Smoktunowicz, E., Bock, J., Luszczynska, A., Benight, C. C., & Cieslak, R. (2015). What Comes First, Job Burnout or Secondary Traumatic Stress? Findings from Two Longitudinal Studies from the U.S. and Poland. Plos ONE, 10(8), 1-15. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0136730

  • Zhou, X., Zhen, R., & Wu, X. (2017). Posttraumatic stress disorder symptom severity and control beliefs as the predictors of academic burnout amongst adolescents following the Wenchuan Earthquake. European Journal Of Psychotraumatology, 8(1), N.PAG. doi:10.1080/20008198.2017.1412227
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