Navigating the crossroads of cybersecurity and mental health


By Garrett O'Hara, Principal Technical Consultant, Mimecast ANZ
Monday, 04 December, 2023

Navigating the crossroads of cybersecurity and mental health

In the realm of cybersecurity, stress and hypervigilance are constants. The relentless task of detecting and preventing attacks, coupled with the blame game when things go awry, exerts an unspoken toll on the mental health of cybersecurity professionals. The unceasing onslaught of attacks and disruptions and the looming spectre of burnout further complicate the already challenging task of recruiting and retaining cybersecurity talent. According to research psychologist Dr Andrew Reeves, cyber professionals are burning out faster than frontline workers1. In fact, nearly a quarter (22%) of Australian cybersecurity professionals are already thinking of leaving their current role.

Yet, many businesses fall short in addressing the mental health concerns of their cybersecurity workforce. The imperative for Australian businesses in 2024 and beyond is to foster awareness, provide education and offer support. They must equip cyber professionals with the necessary tools and resources to alleviate the mental burden.

Cybersecurity and mental health in the current digital age

The field of cybersecurity may be thankless, yet it remains indispensable. The need for mental health support within the profession has been evident for quite some time. Factors contributing to stress and burnout include security budget cuts in organisations, which are forcing security teams to cut back on multilayered security solutions and rely on single solution providers like Microsoft365. These budget cuts are occurring at the same time as cyber attacks are becoming more frequent.

There’s also heightened media coverage, which adds to anxiety, and a sense of underappreciation in the workplace. Relentless and evolving cyber attacks are taking a physical and mental toll, fostering a sense of hopelessness among professionals. Unfortunately, outside of cybersecurity teams, the issue is unappreciated, with 45% of Australian cybersecurity workers reporting that ransomware attacks are either misunderstood or disregarded by leadership, adding to the complexity.

According to Mimecast’s State of Ransomware Readiness report, 54% of cybersecurity professionals openly admit that cyber attacks have a detrimental impact on their mental health. Moreover, 31% of Australian businesses grapple with workforce burnout due to debilitating cyber attacks. The situation is compounded as 70% of Australian businesses continue wrestling with email-based threats. The mental health toll inflicted on cyber professionals is driving many to leave the industry, a potential outcome with far-reaching, albeit unspoken, implications. Systemic vulnerabilities in cybersecurity defences could affect society at large, especially when essential services and critical infrastructure are at risk. Leaders across the industry must therefore recognise this growing convergence between cybersecurity and the mental health of professionals and take proactive steps to mitigate it.

Prioritising robust cybersecurity defences and mental health is critical

As the prevalence of cyber attacks continues to rise, businesses must invest in safeguarding their operations, employees and reputations. However, since cybersecurity and mental health are intricately linked, addressing both concerns simultaneously is an imperative. Unfortunately, many Australian businesses have yet to embrace this approach, which is often rooted in misconceptions at the executive level regarding the nature of cybersecurity work and the needs of IT specialists. Considering the high demand and competition for cybersecurity professionals, too few companies ensure a secure and supportive working environment.

Australian businesses should assess the wellbeing of their cyber professionals and take steps to reduce stress and attrition. These steps should involve providing better resources, enhanced training and improved working conditions. Simple yet effective measures include offering a flexible workplace and implementing mental health initiatives. Adopting innovative technologies and methodologies can ease the pressure on professionals, and at the same time further enhance cybersecurity.

Embracing cutting-edge technologies and methodologies is key for businesses

Businesses must shift their focus from mitigation to proactive prevention, improving threat detection capabilities and response mechanisms, which ultimately reduces the cost of cyber attacks. This necessitates the adoption of better security solutions and training. Mimecast’s research revealed 45% of Australian cybersecurity leaders would like more frequent security awareness training for end users to prevent and prepare for a ransomware attack, while nearly half (48%) felt they needed additional security systems.

Human error is a common cause of data breaches and cyber incidents, underscoring the importance of holistic staff training and the analysis of high-risk areas within an organisation. Drawing an analogy to exam stress, training programs should address email threat awareness and equip employees with strategies to counter subtle psychological manipulations. This approach ensures that every staff member comprehends their role in preventing cyber attacks, alleviating stress among cybersecurity personnel and minimising the risk of burnout.

The other facet of the equation lies in investing in emerging technologies. Cybersecurity is a dynamic field, with cybercriminals constantly devising creative strategies and tools to achieve their objectives — something that is only becoming easier thanks to the rise of AI. Now anyone can create convincing phishing emails and malware. Businesses must remain vigilant by keeping their systems up to date and partnering with security providers that constantly improve their solutions to adapt to the evolving threat landscape.

As cybercriminals continue to evolve their methods, cybersecurity professionals and organisations will face greater threats. Acknowledging the mental health challenges faced by cybersecurity professionals and taking immediate action is essential to ensure smooth operations in the future.

1. Spotify, The Get Cyber Resilient Show: Ep 130 - Cyber’s toll on Mental Health with Dr Andrew Reeves, Director at Cybermindz

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