Burnout happens when job demands such as workload, time-pressure, and difficult clients are high as well as when job resources including quality leadership, autonomy and decision authority, recognition, and strong relationships are lacking. The field of cybersecurity is particularly difficult, but that doesn't mean burnout is inevitable, and it doesn’t mean you can’t recover after experiencing burnout. There are some daily practices that you can take to help you avoid burnout while keeping your performance and productivity high.
Recharging Your Batteries
Each day, you have a certain amount of physical, mental, and emotional energy to spend. Everything you do, every decision you make, and every interaction you have uses some of that energy. This energy is limited and works best when recharged periodically throughout the day.
1. Track (and Hack) Your Sleep
Sleep is a recovery accelerator. A good night’s sleep makes everything else more manageable, and you gain more traction in the other healthy habits you are trying to promote. Simply put, if you aren’t sleeping well, it’s affecting your performance and your relationships. We don’t see this because we aren’t good judges of our performance when we have sleep debt.
However, between your cybersecurity job and other personal responsibilities, expecting you to suddenly get a solid eight hours of sleep every night may not be realistic. Start with tracking your sleep, then make adjustments to increase the quality of sleep you’re getting. If you’re only going to get five hours of sleep, try to make them the best five hours you can get.
Leverage technology tools such as fitness trackers to monitor your sleep time and quality. Then, use that data to hack your sleep; start testing variables and how they impact your sleep. Change your bedtime, limit screens or use blue blocker glasses, use a breathing or progressive muscle relaxation practice in bed, and limit nicotine, caffeine, chocolate, and alcohol around bedtime. Try testing one variable at a time, and try it for about a week before you decide if it has a positive impact on your sleep.
2. Complete the Stress Cycle
The “Fight, Flight, Freeze” response is really useful for, say, getting chased by lions and then finding safety where our physiology can return to baseline. Unfortunately, nowadays our brains think we are being chased by lions all day, every day. These modern-day “lions” can be traffic, personal conflicts, workloads, financial stress, time pressure, and many other stressors that we’ve come to accept as just the experience of everyday living. This heightened state of stress is experienced more frequently and for longer periods than intended, keeping us stuck in survival mode. When in Fight mode, humans tend to experience frustration, anger, rage, and a surge of adrenaline. Flight mode makes us experience a lot of worry, anxiety, fear, or panic. Finally, Freeze mode makes us feel helpless, hopeless, numb, and disconnected from our surroundings. If any of this sounds familiar, then you understand why returning our physiology back to baseline (also known as completing the stress cycle) is so important for preventing burnout.
Completing the stress cycle is about signaling safety and restoring the body to homeostasis after it’s been activated. There are seven evidence-based methods for completing the stress cycle. These methods are all about signaling safety to your brain and clearing stress hormones from your body. Knowing these methods will aid in keeping cybersecurity burnout and stress at bay. They include these simple practices:
- Move your body: Walk, run, push, pull, throw, dance, or stretch. (Uncompleted stress gets stored in your body.)
- Breathe: Slow your breathing and don’t hold your breath. (Relax your belly.)
- Have a positive interaction: Engage in small talk, for instance, or be nice to the barista or neighbor on the plane. (This signals safety.)
- Laugh: Have some deep belly laughs.
- Get some affection: Give a 20-second hug, as an example, or show love to your pets.
- Have a good cry: Tears clear stress hormones.
- Get creative: Garden, draw, paint, craft... let your creative energy flow.
3. Micro-dose Your Recovery
Completing the stress cycle is about recognizing that you are amped up and your stress response is driving the train. Using the strategies outlined above helps you gain control of that train and signal to your body that you are safe. Doing things throughout the day to take care of yourself also improves focus and mood as well as recharges your energy.
When we think of self-care, we usually think of activities that require specific resources or time commitments. These are “full doses” of recovery like a full workout, a massage, or time off from work. These are excellent, and you should want to protect your time so as to get as many full doses as possible. However, when people get overloaded and need to shift priorities, these self-care practices are often the first things that get eliminated from the daily schedule. They are seen as selfish, weak, or simply not as important as the crisis being managed—despite these practices being crucial to combating stress.
So, think about recovery differently. Recharging your batteries doesn’t have to come in full doses. Over time, small changes make a big impact. Below are some ideas for engaging in “micro-doses” of self-care throughout the day. (You’ll notice a reprise of the Complete the Stress Cycle strategies.)
- Take a short walk around the office.
- Do 2-5 minutes of deliberate breathing.
- Listen to a 3-5 min meditation script.
- Stand up and stretch your body.
- Take a dance break.
- Watch a funny video.
- Stare at the wall 30 feet away for 60 seconds.
- Focus your eyes on an object about six inches away, then cup your hands over your eyes so you can see only darkness. (Keep your eyes focused as though they can still see the object about six inches away.)
- Name three things you can see, three things you can hear, and three things you can feel on or around your body.
- Look into apps like Calm, Breakthru, Muse, Inner Balance, and Headspace to guide you through short relaxation practices.
Micro-doses of recovery are easier to fit into your day and are short enough that they won’t throw off your momentum but rather offer you a quick boost of energy and focus.
Protecting Your Bandwidth
Your physical, mental, and emotional bandwidth is a limited resource. Keep that in mind when you are prioritizing tasks and deciding how best to make use of your time and energy. Taking frequent breaks, protecting your boundaries, and having a good work/life balance are all ways to protect your bandwidth.
4. Define Your Priorities
If you don’t prioritize your time/tasks, they will be prioritized for you. If your high priority to-do list keeps getting longer and longer, making you feel less effective and/or accomplished, you’re likely experiencing burnout. To combat this, take a few minutes each day to establish your priorities. What are the three most important things that need to happen that day? (Yes, three.) If these three things get done, then the day can feel like a success—even if many other things didn’t get done.
Of course, this can be easier said than done. Especially if a decent amount of your job involves putting out fires that weren’t blazing when you set your day's priorities. Some of these fires may be more important than the priorities you set for the day. While they may feel more urgent than the priorities you set for the day, some of these fires may not actually be more important than the priorities you set for the day. There's a way to navigate this: Define what constitutes a priority. When a fire comes to your attention, does it constitute a higher priority than your other tasks for that day? If so, see to the fire. If not, focus on the priorities you set for the day and save this fire for another day or another team member.
Here are some questions that may help you filter priorities. The more questions you can easily answer ‘yes’ to, the higher the priority is:
- Is this important? (Does this matter? Will it continue to matter over time?)
- Is this urgent? (Is there a pressing deadline for this?)
- Will this help me learn, grow, or develop? (Will I gain knowledge or skill through this?)
- Am I passionate about this? (Does this make me feel excited? Do I enjoy this?)
- Am I the only one who can do this? (Can this be delegated to someone else?)
Those last three questions are especially important. They protect your bandwidth and protect against burnout. Once you have a score for your priorities, you can weigh them against the fires that come across your desk throughout the day. The fires may not be more important than the priorities you set for the day (though they likely feel more urgent).
5. Recognize the Urgency and Importance of What You’re Facing
Throughout life, there are times to rally and times to recover. A time to rally is an important and urgent situation that requires you to buckle down and work hard until the situation is resolved. A time to recover is a period where you have more flexibility to recharge. When it's time to recover, you can leverage the strategies discussed in the Recharging Your Batteries section. When it's time to rally, it’s time to use your skills at working in high-pressure situations to get the job done.
In working with high-stress professionals, I’ve noticed they tend to be pretty good at buckling down and working hard during intense or high-pressure situations. Where they struggle is seizing the opportunity to recover and reset when it’s not a high-pressure situation (or even recognizing when the current situation does not require a high-stakes response).
There are many things that hit your desk that are urgent. And there are likely many things that hit your desk that feel more urgent than they actually are. So what constitutes an urgent request or task? This is a good conversation to have with your team. Which circumstances call for “all hands on deck,” and which ones, while still important, aren’t the highest priority? Which tasks can be done at a reasonable pace or shifted to a later time? Following the Pareto principle, try to keep your important and urgent tasks under 20% of your total tasks.
Some questions to help you differentiate between the urgency and importance of tasks may include:
- Is this truly urgent? Can it be put off until tomorrow?
- How big of an impact will this have? Will it get significantly worse if you don’t attend to this right now?
- In the bigger picture (two months from now, two years from now), will this have been a big deal?
- Is this important enough to drop other things off the priority list entirely?
- Is this worth depleting all of your physical, mental, and emotional resources?
6. Set Healthy Boundaries
Boundaries are the limits you set that help you be your best. They can be limits you set with yourself or limits you set with others. They help you create and protect a better working environment for yourself. There are times of day that you have the most focus and productivity as well as times of day that you want to protect for your family's or your own self-care. There are also things that are so urgent you need to drop everything and see to them right away (although this is the case way less often than you probably think).
Here are some areas where it may be helpful to set some boundaries as well as examples of what those boundaries may look like.
|What time of day will you unplug from work?||I’m offline and don’t check messages from 5pm-8pm each day for family time.|
|What limits will you set on how quickly you respond to various requests?||I respond to emails within 24 hours. I respond to tickets within three hours.|
|What is a reasonable deadline for you for this task? Do other priorities need to be adjusted before you say 'yes' to this priority?||I can complete this project by next Tuesday. If you need this project done by this Friday, then please tell me which other task on my plate needs to be dropped.|
|What situations constitute a time to rally and therefore an opportunity to be flexible with your boundaries?||These types of breaches or attacks are a time to rally and flex on my time boundaries. Those types of concerns aren’t a time to rally, so my normal boundaries/availability and limits are in effect.|
|Are you making yourself available to emotionally draining conversations?||I’m not willing to discuss this any further. After draining interactions, I give myself 15 minutes to recover energy and refocus before diving back into work.|
If your boundaries include other people respecting your time, space, bandwidth, and other resources, you need to be able to clearly communicate your boundaries with them. This is how you protect your ability to be at your best when it matters most, and most managers should be on-board with supporting you in these efforts.
Building Your Reserves
Positive emotions build the physical, mental, and emotional resources that help enable resilience. The stronger your reserves, the more bandwidth you have, and the more effective your recharging strategies will be.
7. Build Stronger Relationships
A key aspect of resilience is having strong support systems. This includes family, friends, leaders, mentors, and team members. Other people matter.
Think of the quality of each relationship you have as a bank account. Every interaction has a positive or negative impact on that bank account balance. Showing up for people, making them laugh, being excited with them, and supporting them are all examples of how you make deposits. Having a disregard for people; missing important events; being grumpy, distracted, or dismissive to others; and breaking trust are examples of how you may make withdrawals. We want our relationship account balances to be high.
Think about the five people you spend the most time with and/or are most important to you. What does the bank account balance look like for each of those relationships? What can you do to increase those balances?
Say something nice, have some 1:1 time, and follow through on a promise. Having positive interactions with others lowers your stress levels and brings you back to baseline. Even positive interactions with strangers has this effect. Sometimes you may feel too exhausted, but doing this intentionally fills your tank and theirs. Remember, affection and positive interaction complete the stress cycle.
8. Align Your Values
Values are guiding principles that show everyone (including yourself) what’s important and where your priorities lie. Anyone watching should be able to identify what your values are simply by observing your behaviors. Your values shape your career choices, your interpersonal relationships, and even how you spend your free time. Your values are what led you to make the choices to get into and stay in this field. Ideally, your personal values align with your organization’s values.
If your life feels like it’s sucking the soul out of you, take a moment to name your values, then reflect on how much you’re able to uphold and demonstrate those values. Chances are, your core values aren’t showing up much. This causes a disconnect between the core of who you are and the way you spend your time and energy. In fact, staying true to your values at work prevents burnout, and working in an environment not aligned with your values increases stress. This is because values are a source of energy, one which allows you to handle stress as well as have the confidence to set and maintain healthy boundaries.
What are your values? Have you named them before? It’s helpful to reflect on this at least a few times a year, as sometimes your values and life priorities shift. Read through this list of values and circle any that resonate with you. Now look at the list of values you’ve circled and eliminate all but the top ten. From that list of ten, select your top 2-5 values.
Now, take these core values and define them into observable behaviors. For example, family becomes “I value providing for my family” or “I value spending quality time with my family.”
Finally, give yourself a grade on how well you live these values every day. If you scored lower than an 'A,' what choices can you make to embody them more fully?
Avoiding Cybersecurity Burnout
When working in the field of cybersecurity, the odds may feel stacked against you, but experiencing burnout doesn’t have to be inevitable, and it doesn’t have to be a one-way ticket out of the profession. There are things you can do on a daily basis to protect yourself from cybersecurity burnout and to help recover if you’re already burnt out.
Recharging your batteries; protecting your limited physical, mental, and emotional bandwidth; as well as building your reserves can help avoid burnout and increase your staying power in the stressful field of cybersecurity.
Are you a leader of a cybersecurity team? Read about how you can help your team avoid burnout in my LinkedIn article.
Kaitlyn spent over six years as a Master Resilience Trainer and Performance Expert training soldiers in the United States Army. Since then, Kaitlyn started Learning to LEAD and provides custom workshops for high-stress professionals like first responders and cybersecurity experts. She has delivered multiple well-received workshops on burnout and resilience to cybersecurity incident responder teams.
Want to learn more ways to microdose your recovery and stay healthy while working? Read more tips on her blog.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this guest author article are solely those of the contributor, and do not necessarily reflect those of Tripwire, Inc.