5 ways to curb cybersecurity burnout

91% of CISOs suffer ‘moderate or high’ levels of stress. Here are some ways to help.

Former CISO Karen Worstell doesn’t mind sharing her burnout story with others in the industry as a cautionary tale. About a decade ago, she left her role as VP of risk management at AT&T Wireless following a grueling merger project. She took a two-week vacation and then started her new role as CISO at Microsoft. Her adjustment into the new culture proved rocky and excruciatingly stressful after her boss laid out her performance metric for the year: No hack, no leaks.

Self-doubt crept in, and she sought the help of a psychiatrist who told her there was nothing wrong with her. She was probably just sleep deprived, he said. He handed her three prescriptions and then made a troublesome comment: “You have no idea how many of your colleagues I see here.” She resigned five months later.

Unlike IT projects she had done that had a beginning and an end, “the challenge with cybersecurity is there’s no way to contain it,” says Worstell, who is now CEO of W Risk Group and founder of MOJO Maker for women in tech. “When you move into something that is highly stressful and uncontainable, it kind of takes on a life of its own. It’s like your worst nightmare that you can’t wake up from.”

Stress is undoubtedly playing a part in the mental health decline and career burnout of today’s CISOs and their teams. Some 91% of CISOs say they suffer “moderate or high” levels of stress, and 60% “rarely” disconnect from their work role, according to a recent survey commissioned by Nominet of 408 CISOs overseeing security for large US and UK organizations. Even more alarming, 17% say that they have turned to medication or alcohol to help deal with that stress.

Making matters worse, a constant deluge of headlines pop up almost daily on mobile phones alerting security professionals to the latest breach or attacker. It leaves the impression that “your comrades are falling on the battlefield all around you!” Worstell says.

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