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Stressed, overworked CISOs losing £23k a year in unpaid overtime

Nominet’s latest CISO Stress Report has revealed the extent to which organisations are taking advantage of their security staff, and the deleterious effects of overwork and stress on mental health

Overworked and stressed chief information security officers (CISOs) are gifting their employers up to £23,000 of free labour every year by going over their contracted hours, with 95% putting in an average of 10 hours unpaid overtime every week, according to Nominet’s latest CISO stress report.

The study found that 87% of CISOs felt that working additional hours was expected by their organisation, 71% of CISOs thought their work-life balance was out of whack, and 98% reported difficulty being able to switch off from work.

The report laid bare the deleterious effect of unpaid overtime on employee mental health with the finding that 90% of CISOs would be willing to take a pay cut – an average of 7.76% of their annual wage – if it improved their work-life balance.

“We are potentially heading towards a burnout crisis if the very people who we are relying on to keep businesses secure are operating under mounting pressure. CISO stress is on the rise – with almost 90% moderately or tremendously affected – and it’s taking a greater toll on their personal lives and wellbeing,” said Nominet CEO Russell Haworth.

“Not only is this harming the lives of CISOs, but will ultimately make it harder to retain staff, catch attacks early and improve security. It is worrying that at board level, understanding of these pressures appears not to have translated into action,” he added.

While Nominet found that the number of CISOs who reported being moderately or tremendously stressed was down a little from 2019 (91% to 88%), the effects of stress on mental health, physical health and personal relationships are being felt more keenly.

“We are potentially heading towards a burnout crisis if the very people who we are relying on to keep businesses secure are operating under mounting pressure”
Russell Haworth, Nominet

Many reported missing family birthdays, holidays, weddings and funerals, while others said they did not take their full complement of annual leave or sick days.

As a result, nearly half of CISOs said work-related stress had had a detrimental effect on their mental health – almost twice as many as last year – and nearly a third reported an impact on their physical wellbeing. Around 40% of respondents said their stress levels had affected their relationships with their families, and 32% had experienced repercussions on their marriage or romantic relationships.

Nominet also found that the number of CISOs potentially abusing medication or alcohol to cope with the pressure had increased by a quarter year-on-year, from 17% in 2019 to 23% now.

“While there have been positive steps in mental health and stress-related issues, the essence of tackling these issues has not received as much attention as needed,” said Dimitrios Tsivrikos, a lecturer in consumer and business psychology at University College London.

“While measuring, understanding and incorporating key findings within the work is incredibly important, we also need to consider that there is a lack of research that looks into work-life balance.

“We do anticipate that stress levels will continue to rise until we address the issue of stress, mental health and wellbeing at work. These are issues that are recognised, but we have to match awareness with passion for actually tackling stress and allowing employees to live a happier and healthier life,” said Tsivrikos.

Haas F1 Team CIO Gary Foote said that with the constantly shifting and evolving threat landscape, it was little surprise that stress levels among CISOs remained high.

“But it is always disappointing to read that it continues to have a big impact on the personal lives of my peers,” he said. “Mental and physical health at work is a hugely important subject, and though some organisations are recognising this and reacting positively, there is still a lot of progress to be made. Burnout will neither help the CISOs, the board or the business, and consequently accelerated change is required to ensure security teams are supported – technically, financially and personally.”

The report also revealed how, even though employers are getting plenty of value for money out of their security leads, they could benefit from easing back on the demands they place on them in many ways, not least in terms of employee retention – the high rate of burnout means the average CISO tenure now stands at a little over two years.

Board support lacking

Nominet found that while boards are taking security more seriously – they are actually more likely than CISOs to say that cyber threats are a risk to the organisation – and are aware of the high-pressure nature of the CISO role, many won’t accept the inevitability of security breaches, and still hold CISOs responsible for any incidents, which risks creating a toxic working environment.

“With a strong and empowered CISO at the head of their security team, organisations will face less risk, be better protected, be more able to deal with a security breach when it hits, and ultimately become safer from cyber crime”
Stuart Reed, Nominet

“Our research into the attitudes of the board shows that they understand the risk of cyber crime to their organisation and they even appreciate that the CISO is placed under considerable stress to combat this risk. However, this awareness has clearly not translated into support for the CISO,” observed Nominet cyber vice-president Stuart Reed.

“Until this stress is relieved, the CISO’s ability to deliver value to the business will be diminished as their ability to do their job is hampered and they quickly become burnt out.

“The role of the CISO can only be improved by a better working relationship with the board, so it’s important that the C-suite recognises that improving the CISO’s working life can only have positive outcomes for the business.

“With a strong and empowered CISO at the head of their security team, organisations will face less risk, be better protected, be more able to deal with a security breach when it hits, and ultimately become safer from cyber crime.”

The study of 800 C-suite executives and CISOs in the UK and US – all working at organisations with more than 3,000 employees – was conducted on Nominet’s behalf by Vanson Bourne in the autumn of 2019.

Read more about mental health issues

  • Staff shortages, long hours and lack of flexibility are impacting the wellbeing of people in the IT sector, according to a Harvey Nash survey.
  • At Black Hat Europe in London, researchers reveal the extent to which confidential data is being leaked to third parties by online mental health websites.
  • UK universities are turning to data analytics software to tackle student mental health. Are there duty of care lessons for other sectors?

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