Due to the digital security talent shortage, hiring IT experts has become a challenge for many businesses. In many cases, their current workforce must manage excessive workloads. This, along with other factors like insufficient budgets, the constant need to keep up with new trends, and lack of trust in the company’s top management, is among the most common reasons for burnout in the IT industry. How do you not lose valuable talent and make sure your digital security experts are motivated to protect your company? Jana Hoang, director of global people knowledge and expertise at ESET, shared a few insights – including tips for prevention and problem-solving.
Did you know?
According to the World Economic Forum, in February 2023, the market was missing 3.4 million digital security workers. Around 59% of business leaders and 64% of cyber leaders ranked talent recruitment and retention as a key challenge for managing cyber resilience.
The COVID crisis as a burnout trigger
Apart from the reasons named above, according to Hoang, there is one other factor that significantly affected the mental health of many IT professionals – the coronavirus crisis. “At the very beginning of the pandemic, not many were ready to move to a full-time home office regime. IT managers needed to do their best to provide employees with all the necessary equipment for secure remote working. The level of stress and workload increased to a significantly higher value than before,” explains the HR professional.
For a company that works in digital security, there is much more pressure and requirements for secure workplaces. Also, by switching to an exclusively remote working model, many IT specialists had to increase their workloads significantly. “They tended to forget to take breaks, even if that meant just taking a short one to stretch out, have a coffee, or eat. Some of our IT professionals continuously shifted from one online meeting to another. No small talk, just nonstop work. They started to have trouble sleeping, thinking of work all night long. Their performance might have increased, yet so has the risk of burnout,” says Hoang. A similar situation happened in other segments of the organisation too.
First signs of burnout
How can you recognise when burnout sneaks in? Among other signs, an individual starts to struggle with motivation and shows indifference and cynicism. “People that would typically bring new ideas and be optimistic had changed to a more passive approach. Suddenly, they just sit in the meetings quietly or stop attending them at all. Sometimes, they also start to be excessively critical of everything, saying things like ‘Why should we do this at all? It’s pointless,’ or they give up without even trying,” says Hoang. Employees suffering from burnout cease to perform their jobs with passion and can lack responsibility, often resulting in low-quality outputs and worsening results.
In extreme cases, when the signs of burnout are underestimated or unidentified, the day comes when an affected employee doesn’t show up at work, and they won’t come in again anymore. As Jana Hoang stresses, “At a certain point, the body says it’s been enough and switches off, just like with any other health problem.”
The intensity of burnout varies depending on its seriousness. A consultation with a psychologist or a therapist can help the individual to identify the stressors and outline the next steps. “In some cases, when the signs are rather mild, decreasing workload, reprioritising, increasing staff capacities, or explaining the meaning of the job duties might help. Try to clarify why their tasks are important for the whole company so that they can see the impact and the bigger picture. Knowing what you work on and why you work on it is crucial,” points out the ESET HR professional.
Should the burnout be more severe and the person very exhausted, time off might help. “At ESET, some of the affected employees are offered a sabbatical. Its length depends on the employee’s state and preferences, yet it must also be in line with the company’s needs. Mostly, it’s up to three months. We recommend refraining from using digital devices and calming their minds by redirecting their focus to doing something that makes employees happy, preferably a rather unchallenging, simpler activity. Some of them decide to work manually, for example, at a construction site, while others spend their leave painting or renovating their homes, embark on travelling or do some charity work. Meditation and regaining a healthy sleep regime also help,” elaborates Hoang.
In most cases, the sabbatical helps, and the individual comes back with even more motivation or newly gained skills that are reciprocally beneficial to the company. In others, the employee decides to leave the company for good. “Should the latter happen, we make the employee sure the door is open if they want to return to ESET again,” says Hoang.
How to approach prevention? Four tips
1. Build transparency, and don’t forget about small talk
If an IT admin or other IT professional feels like they are losing their passion, they should feel supported and know that it’s always reasonable to approach their superiors. However, this state can only be reached in a healthy work environment. “Leaders and managers should communicate with their team members about business-related issues, deadlines, and resources, but also find the time for small talk. All humans have troubles and dreams that should be shared out loud.
An open, casual discussion while having lunch or coffee can reveal a lot and pinpoint the first indications of burnout,” says Hoang. If the manager feels something’s wrong with the employee’s mood and motivation, proceeding with an action plan such as saying “See me in my office” or sending a sudden calendar invitation should be out of the question, as those can cause even more stress.
A spontaneous coffee/lunch break outside the office premises or a short walk is more natural and will help employees open up and express themselves. “IT professionals tend to be rather introverted. Therefore, supporting them to share their feelings as much as possible is beneficial. Sometimes, I compare managers to parents. They should spot when their children start acting differently – never judging or laughing even at the problems that might seem the most absurd. The better the relationship and trust between the parent and child, the more strong and positive their relationship becomes,” sums up the HR director.
How to approach talks with employees:
1. Ask OPEN questions to elicit broader and deeper communication; CLOSED “Yes” or “No” questions do not help you enough to understand the inner world of your counterpart and can lead to wrong assumptions.
2. Focus on positive reinforcement, and use positive words rather than negative ones – this can help to increase serotonin levels in the brain.
3. Navigate the conversation by asking questions that will redirect your counterpart from complaining to problem-solving.
Examples of questions that might be asked:
- How have you been feeling recently? What makes you happy?
- What would you like to change or influence?
- What do you like and dislike in your position?
- What elements of your job do you find motivating/stimulating/engaging/fun?
- How would you change your job scope/responsibilities, and how would it make you feel?
2. Take individuality into account
Whereas some people can stand huge workloads and never suffer from burnout, others might be a lot more sensitive due to genetic predispositions. For this reason, it’s crucial to approach employees with respect for their personality traits. What might work OK for one could not work well for others. “If the manager sends emails at 2 AM, they should let their co-workers know they don’t expect them to do the same and that it’s not the expected standard.
Individual characters, backgrounds, and conditions should always be considered,” states Jana Hoang. Some stressors might be work-related; others can be personal. It is advantageous for any manager to know them both – and, if necessary, even ask the top management for assistance or take measures that would increase the employees’ well-being.
3. Provide your employees with professional psychological support
The employee’s superiors, the HR department, and HR professionals should provide employees with support. A company or a partner psychologist can be a great solution if you want to enable your employees to get anonymous early intervention and professional help. Jana Hoang shares a few examples: “At ESET, employees can use the services of a psychologist three times a year free of charge. We also regularly organise workshops aimed at mental health improvement, meditation techniques, and burnout prevention.
We also address communication, providing webinars and learning sessions that offer guidance on approaching one’s manager and opening a dialogue when not feeling motivated or exhausted, offering methods for better prioritising or time management. Regularly, we share inspiring content about mental health, such as podcasts and LinkedIn lectures. Unfortunately, many still feel uneasy about speaking up and sharing early enough that they’ve been feeling strange, as they think others will judge them or consider them crazy or weak. We want to do our best to overcome this stigma. Even our mind/our mental self can get sick if overstimulated or exhausted, just like any physical body part.”
4. If possible, don’t go for 100% remote working
Personal contact benefits creativity and mental health, activating many parts of our brains and nervous systems. “People who only work remotely can easily miss the opportunity to get inspired by random conversations or forget to take breaks. Even small talk in the office kitchen can be an energy boost or help identify signs of unhappiness,” says Hoang. Therefore, combining a home office with a physical presence in the workplace is highly recommended.
“From our experience, our employees, sooner or later, internalise this concept as the best-case scenario, as they then tend to come to the office more frequently. Humans are naturally sociable beings – from time to time, we need to surround ourselves with people that make us feel good and inspire our brains for further development, and those people we definitely have in our company,” concludes Jana Hoang.
Jana Hoang, Director of Global People Knowledge and Expertise at ESET
Jana graduated in IT, English language, and arts at the University in Nitra, Slovakia. She started her HR career at ESET in 2008 as an HR generalist. In 2010, she was awarded the RecruitRank award from Profesia.sk portal as the best HR Specialist in Slovakia. Later, she focused mostly on HR partnering and the total rewards agenda. In 2022, she became the director of global people knowledge and expertise at ESET. Since then, she’s overseen ESET’s global compensation, benefits, and org design, global talent development and learning, internal communications, and employee events.