2/14/2019
05:40 PM
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High Stress Levels Impacting CISOs Physically, Mentally

Some have even turned to alcohol and medication to cope with pressure.



A quarter of chief information security officers (CISOs) suffer from mental and health disorders as a result of tremendous and growing work pressures, a new survey shows.

Contributing to the strain are concerns about job security, inadequate budget and resources, and a continued lack of support from the board and upper management.

Domain name registry service provider Nominet recently polled 408 CISOs working at midsize and large organizations in the United Kingdom and United States about the challenges they encounter in their jobs.

A whopping 91% of the respondents admitted to experiencing moderate to high stress, and 26% said the stress was impacting them mentally and physically. A troubling 17% of the CISOs who took Nominet's survey admitted to turning to alcohol and medication to deal with the stress, and 23% said their work was ruining personal relationships.

Nominet's survey showed that 40-hour workweeks are a rarity among CISOs. Twenty-two percent said they are available on an around-the-clock basis, and nearly nine in 10 of US-based CISOs said they don't have a break from work for two weeks or more at a stretch.

The data is not surprising, says Jon Oltsik, senior principal analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG). "The demands of the [CISO] job are growing much faster than the resources available," he says. Business executives are constantly asking CISOs to do more even as security leaders themselves often have to contend with understaffed teams, manual processes, and a patchwork of tools.

In a survey that ESG conducted, 70% of the respondents said a skills shortage was impacting their ability to properly protect their organizations against cyberthreats. About a quarter said the skills shortage had resulted in staff burnout and turnover, Oltsik says. "[As a result], many CISOs are leaving corporate jobs to become virtual CISOs where they have more control and flexibility."  

Nominet's survey data reflects several of these trends. More than half (57%) of the CISOs said a lack of resources is holding them back from implementing a more effective security posture, and 63% are having trouble recruiting the right people. Despite substantial increases in overall enterprise security spending in recent years, less than half (43%) said they have an adequate or very adequate security budget, and just 51% said they have the requisite technologies for protecting the enterprise.

Nominet CEO Russell Haworth says the constantly evolving threat environment is one major reason why CISOs feel they are under-resourced despite all the spending. "There are always new threats and threat variants, which drive the need for new defenses," he says.

Enterprise datasets are typically massive, with huge volumes of traffic hiding tiny levels of malicious activity; for many, finding evidence of breaches and malicious activity remains a major challenge, he notes. "The largest resource deficit identified in the study was people," Howarth says. A majority of CISOs identified the skills shortage as impacting their ability to find malware hidden on their network, he adds.

Top Management Disconnect
A continuing lack of top management support is exacerbating the situation. Nearly one in five said their board members are indifferent to the security team and viewed them as an inconvenience, and only 52% said their executive teams value the security organization from a revenue and brand protection standpoint. Likely as a result of such attitudes, 32% of CISOs told Nominet they are concerned they would lose their jobs in the event of a breach.

"Across the board, there was an overarching feeling amongst the CISOs questioned that, whilst their work is appreciated by senior management teams, it's still yet to be seen as strategically valuable," Haworth says. "We would expect that CISOs may have the highest stress levels among other senior technology executives, [considering] many CISOs feel the burden of protecting the entire organization is on their back."

Gartner analyst Avivah Litan says the results of the Nominet study are another confirmation of the many challenges security organizations face. Enterprise organizations are under more attack and need to protect more data than ever before. But few are applying automation, artificial intelligence, and machine intelligence approaches in understanding the threats they face and in addressing them. A shortsighted emphasis on revenue generation and new customer acquisition over security at many places is often leaving CISOs in an untenable position, she notes.

"CISOs bear more responsibility than they should," Litan observes. Though many are compensated well, "it is a very difficult career path for anyone," she says.

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Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio

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