IT Staff Burnout During Pandemic

How is your IT staff coping during the pandemic? 

It’s been well-documented that the number of remote workers has exploded over the last few months. IT operations and the cybersecurity teams that defend your digital infrastructure may have never faced such relentless demands. Many IT staff have been on call 24×7 as users, unfamiliar with working from home, have been supported by your teams. The consistency that IT professionals prize in their fleets of computing equipment has been disrupted as unique set-ups and idiosyncratic configurations have been required just to enable people to get their work done. New security considerations and requirements have appeared by the day. And, seizing the opportunity, cybercriminals and hackers have stepped up the assaults on businesses and remote operations, with massive increases in phishing, spear phishing, SMShing (text-based phishing), spoofed websites, and DDoS attacks.

How is the pandemic affecting staff?

All of these varied demands and continuing operational uncertainty can place significant strain on IT professionals. The relentless demands for uptime, customer service, and heightened and shifting cyber threats have combined to force staff to be on high alert for extended periods. Many techs cannot simply shut things down at 5:00 p.m. like some of their colleagues, potentially creating fatigue and resentment. The workload is high, and as backlogs develop, a sense of hopelessness can creep in.

Further, the suddenness of the onset of the pandemic created a loss of control for IT staff, who prize consistency and predictability. Constant firefighting and uncertainty about the next curveball from the situation can be draining on personnel.

In addition to the technical challenges, the emotional well-being of your teams can be at risk. Staff can face burnout which can have serious implications on the individuals, beyond just increasing the potential for error. Staff who burn out could disappear suddenly, disrupting operations and generating lengthy absences or permanent departures. Staff who are burned out have depleted energy, which can manifest itself as negativity and cynicism towards their jobs. This reduction in professionalism can negatively affect work performance and interactions with other staff. None of this is conscious or intentional – it can happen to the best of employees when placed in the worst of situations for an extended length of time.

Particularly for IT professionals, the line between personal and professional life can be blurred – working from home has only heightened it, and those who don’t already work from home may not be equipped or aware of the dangers until it is too late.

What can IT Managers do to support their staff?

IT managers need to recognize these challenges and adjust their management styles accordingly. From watching “tells” during videoconferences and phone calls to reviewing work product, supervisory staff need to be on the alert for signs of stress, burnout, and reduced productivity. This is doubly difficult as managers themselves may be facing unique situations on the home front, but they need to be vigilant and compassionate in understanding the special technical and personal challenges faced by their teams.

Managers will be wise to look ahead at schedules and begin planning vacation or time off for teams that likely have not had any breaks in the last several months. Important but non-essential activities are likely creating a backlog – are alternative resources or outsourcing opportunities available to handle these cases? Otherwise a new “technical debt” crisis is developing that will place even more strain on teams, as discretionary projects mount up on the sidelines.

Managers can also encourage their technical teams to set boundaries – either physically at home to separate work from personal environments, or by respecting schedules by limiting after-hours and weekend requests to true emergencies only. Publish and respect these schedules, and educate all staff about limits. Most people are very understanding when things are explained to them and reasonable boundaries are set.

Communication is essential, and prioritization is a must. Non-essential activities should be discontinued or reassigned, to ensure that only top value work is being done by your finite IT resources. Meaningful gestures of acknowledgement from management and human resources will be appreciated by the staff who have done so much to support your business in an unprecedented time of crisis. Without this recognition, staff may feel underappreciated, thereby contributing to burnout.

Managers can also re-energize their staff by looking for creative ways to remind them about why they got into the cybersecurity field in the first place, framing the crisis as a challenge to be faced with innovation, resourcefulness and teamwork.

What can be done at the corporate level?

Your corporate EHP will likely have extensive resources available to assist personnel in recharging their batteries by encouraging regular breaks, physical fitness, nutrition, sleep and over-all mental health. This can be presented as resilience – a concept that staff will understand from their own work – but implemented on a personal level.

HR needs to recognize that many of the rewarding social aspects of work have now changed, or may be absent, which can diminish the positives about the job. Creative ways to re-connect virtually can help foster social communication, beyond the break/fix requests that many techs are receiving today.

Strengthening and standardizing corporate education materials and training resources can help reduce the burden on routine IT help desk enquiries, and bring everyone closer to a shared understanding of risks and exposures. Everyone must recognize that cybersecurity is not just an IT operations problem: it demands a team effort, and is more of an issue than ever during the pandemic.

Communicate with all staff to remind them about prioritizing requests, recognizing and appreciating IT staff, and understanding that remote working environments will be different (things may look a bit different or may run a bit slower). Griping from staff erodes IT staff spirit. Agreement and communication on priorities and service levels will help reduce dissonance and wasted resources.

Just as the IT organization is reflecting on essential services and efficiency, the company at large has likely been forced to re-think ways of getting work done during the pandemic. What non-essential activities can be eliminated? Is work still aligned with primary business goals, which may have changed during the pandemic? What automation or streamlining can be introduced to help reduce the burden for staff on an ongoing basis, even once operations return to normal? How can cloud or as-a-service offerings help the enterprise? Many businesses are now recognizing that they will be maintaining remote/distributed workforces for the long term, so bandage solutions may not have the legs to persist. Setting longer term goals and agreeing on the shape of the “next normal” will give IT staff the sense they are working towards a bigger target, not just constantly in firefighting mode.

Looking Ahead

Your technical staff has performed heroically over the last few months, helping your organization get through an unprecedented time. Take an opportunity to reflect on how they’re coping, and do what you can do for them to help prevent burnout. Everyone will benefit.

ISA can help you provide support your IT staff, with a wide range of on-demand and as-a-service cybersecurity offerings to augment your internal teams. We also offer innovative cybersecurity training resources to help all staff be more cyber safe. Contact ISA today to learn more

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