Break Security Burnout: Combining Leadership With Neuroscience

Industry leaders aim to solve the threat to both the mental health of workers and security of organizations with solutions that recognize the enormous pressures facing cybersecurity professionals.

Man with dark hair and a beard sitting down with his mouth open in a scream holding a computer, the screen of which shows lines of computercode
Source: Roman Samborskyi via Alamy Stock Photo

It's no secret that burnout is an epidemic among cybersecurity professionals that threatens not only the mental health of workers in the field, but also the security of organizations. But how to solve the growing crisis is still something with which the industry is grappling.

Peter Coroneos, founder of Cybermindz, and Kayla Williams, CISO of Devo, have different perspectives on cybersecurity burnout given their distinct roles and perspectives as industry leaders, but together they have a shared vision to find solutions to help break the current cycle of burnout that faces the cybersecurity profession.

Coroneos is founder of Cybermindz, a not-for-profit that offers resilience training for cyber teams, among others; and Williams is chief information security officer (CISO) of Devo, a cloud-native security analytics company.

The two — whose companies already are partners in fighting burnout — will come together at the upcoming RSA Conference to host a session called "Burnout in Cyber: The Intersection of Neuroscience, Gender, and Wellbeing." Their session will present some reasons why cybersecurity burnout has become a vicious cycle, as well as how a combination of empathetic leadership and neuroscience-based training can help break it.

Security Staff Burnout: A Wake-Up Call

The "wake-up call" for Coroneos on how serious the burnout problem came when a survey of 200 cybersecurity professionals conducted by Wakefield Research on behalf of Devo released its results last September. The study found that a hefty 83% of those surveyed admit that stress has led them and peers to make errors that have caused data breaches.   

The COVID-19 pandemic-related workplace changes as well as the increased cyberattacks taking advantage of organizations' hasty and often insecure shift to accommodate a remote workforce really threw cybersecurity burnout into high gear, he said.

"COVID brought together a number of factors that have been brewing in the background for a number of years," Coroneos says in a recent interview.

Working remotely, cybersecurity professionals felt even less of a separation between their work and home lives and felt as if they quite literally always took their work home with them. And with cyberattackers exploiting the vulnerable security situation with which many companies were faced at the time, there was even more work for them to do, and thus more pressure than ever, he says.

It was a "perfect storm" of conditions to foster burnout, Coroneos says. "We started to see many more reports of the degradation in the mental health status of cybersecurity teams," he says. "They feel this relentless pressure with no end in sight."

The Blame Game

Some of that pressure comes with the often-unfair burden of blame that CISOs and chief security officers (CSOs) in particular shoulder when a data breach or attack goes horribly wrong for a company, says Williams, who in her position as CISO knows all too well.

A key source of stress these executives experience is that they often don't control their budgets and the overall security roadmap at their respective organizations, and thus don't typically get the sufficient funding to execute their vision for a company's security. However, they still will be held accountable if something goes wrong, Williams says.

She cited notable high-profile lawsuits brought against top security executives from Uber and SolarWinds in which they took the brunt of the blame for security incidents at their respective companies as scenarios that are scaring top professionals out of the industry.

"From what I'm seeing and hearing, turnover is incredibly high," Williams says. "Speaking to my peers, they don't want to be CSOs anymore."

Indeed, the Devo survey found that 85% of professionals surveys will leave their role in the next year, while 25% will leave the industry entirely.

The current situation that many security professionals find themselves in is a burnout cycle that keeps those who stay in the profession feeling stressed out and hopeless about their jobs, while creating unprecedented numbers of turnover in a position that already faces job shortages. This circular cycle creates even more burnout for those who stay in cybersecurity roles, Coroneos and Williams say.

Breaking the Security Fatigue Cycle

To break this cycle, the two professionals pose a combination of empathetic leadership strategies and a neuroscience-based solution to help retrain people's minds to deal with high levels of stress.

As a CISO herself, Williams says she knows how important it is to communicate effectively with people in various cybersecurity roles within the organization to ensure that their individual needs both professionally and emotionally are being met. This is especially true as a new generation of cyber professionals with different emotional needs is entering the workforce, she says.

"As a people leader, it is my responsibility to ensure that I am communicating to my teams in a way that resonates with them," Williams says. It's important for leaders to take time to understand the needs of individuals on a team and to check in with them as they would with family or friends to ensure they are not feeling overwhelmed by stress or the demands of their responsibilities, she says.

Meanwhile, Cybermindz is taking a page out of the playbook of international armed forces with a training solution called Integrative Restoration (iRest) that has been implemented by the US and Australian military since 2006 and 2016, respectively.

iRest — the result of more than 40 years of observation, research and development by clinical psychologist Richard Miller and his team at an institute of the same name California — is an attention-training technique to help the brain's limbic system return to a restful state after an intense period of high stress.

The problem for cybersecurity pros is that they often get stuck in a constant state of psychological fight-or-flight response pattern due to the constant stress cycle of their jobs, Coroneos explains. iRest is a training that helps them switch out of this cycle to bring them to a deeper state of relaxation to reset that fight-or-flight response. This will help the brain switch off, so it is not constantly creating stress not only in the workplace but throughout their everyday lives, thus creating burnout, he says.

"We need to get them into a position where they can come into a proper relationship into their subconscious," Coroneos says, adding that so far cybersecurity professionals who have experienced the training — which Cybermindz is currently piloting— report they are sleeping better and making clearer decisions after only a few sessions of the program.

Indeed, while burnout remains a serious problem, the message Coroneos and Williams ultimately want to convey is one of hope that there are solutions to solve the burnout problem currently facing cybersecurity professionals, and that the enormous pressures these dedicated professionals face is not being overlooked.

"We want to show them that their mental health need not be the price of their career," Coroneos says.

About the Author(s)

Elizabeth Montalbano, Contributing Writer

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer, journalist, and therapeutic writing mentor with more than 25 years of professional experience. Her areas of expertise include technology, business, and culture. Elizabeth previously lived and worked as a full-time journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York City; she currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal. In her free time, she enjoys surfing, hiking with her dogs, traveling, playing music, yoga, and cooking.

Keep up with the latest cybersecurity threats, newly discovered vulnerabilities, data breach information, and emerging trends. Delivered daily or weekly right to your email inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights