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Security Think Tank: Create healthy habits to avoid burnout

Cyber criminals are enjoying a boom during the Covid-19 pandemic, and security teams are working overtime as a result. How can security professionals manage their increased workload, safeguard their mental well-being and avoid burnout?

Security professionals have highly stressful and demanding jobs; they frequently have to manage critical security incidents and work overtime to stay on top of a range of cyber threats. The Covid-19 era has compounded this stress tenfold – individuals are expected to perform their role remotely with less time and tools at their disposal, with many required to juggle parenting and teaching all under one roof. This amalgamation of stress and workload will significantly affect mental well-being, possibly resulting in burnout.

To stay on top of this threat and perform at the highest level, security professionals should consider the following scientific-backed solutions for improving physical and mental well-being:

Reduce cognitive fatigue by managing time more wisely

Mental ups and downs are a natural part of human behaviour. However, the feeling of being perpetually overwhelmed by work will have a significant negative impact on the level of dopamine in the brain – the neurochemical responsible for regulating motivation, concentration levels, problem-solving skills and physical motor function.

In a role where these attributes are critical for effectively managing security incidents, security professionals must re-assess how to effectively manage their time in the context of home working, where it is very easy to work constantly without breaks or social interaction. They should pinpoint the exact source of their stress and discuss outsourcing or delegating tasks to others, while managing their day more wisely, for example, by strictly setting boundaries and separating working hours from personal hours.

Celebrate success throughout the working day

During lockdown, minimal physical human interaction can have a significant effect on levels of oxytocin in the brain – the neurochemical responsible for feelings of empathy, social bonding and affection.

“Security professionals should consider breaking down big goals into manageable tasks and celebrate their successes more frequently with the wider team”
Dan Norman, Information Security Forum

Security professionals should consider breaking down big goals into manageable tasks and celebrate their successes more frequently with the wider team, for example, by sending a “well done” email to their team or eating a favourite chocolate bar. This celebration will fire a constant flow of dopamine to the brain throughout the day, reinforcing the positive feeling of success and heightening levels of oxytocin, which will improve working relationships and build togetherness.

Improve nutrition to perform at the highest level

High-quality nutrition has a significant role to play in physical and mental well-being. Too much saturated fat, alcohol and caffeine can result in feelings of lethargy, fatigue and lack of motivation.

The below is just a short list of foods that can significantly improve brain function, mood, motivation and reduce levels of stress:

  • Nuts – a great source of Omega-3, which can improve cognitive performance and enhance the development of neurons in the brain, slowing the rate of cognitive decline.
  • Oily fish – prevents mild memory loss, reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety, and reduces inflammation brought about by mental stress.
  • Berries – boost levels of serotonin in the brain, the neurochemical responsible for regulating anxiety, happiness and mood.

Exercise regularly and have a consistent sleep routine

Security professionals must ensure they build time to exercise into the day to reduce cognitive fatigue. Even just 30 minutes of exercise per day increases concentrations of norepinephrine in the brain, a chemical that moderates the brain’s response to stress.

Exercise also boosts the production of endorphins and serotonin within the body, which improve mood, reduce signs of anxiety and increase levels of inspiration, motivation and relaxation.

Having between seven and nine hours of sleep per night is crucial for mental and physical repair and to avoid burnout. Sleep disruption negatively affects levels of stress hormones and wreaks havoc on the brain, impairing cognitive ability and emotional regulation, which can adversely impact an individual’s day. Creating a comfortable sleeping environment, away from bright lights and devices, can have profound effects on quality of sleep.

While the coronavirus pandemic is highly stressful and challenging, it has provided security professionals with an opportunity to address some of the fundamental concerns regarding personal well-being. If individuals take concerted action to reflect on and improve their physical and mental well-being then the era post-Covid-19 may be more fruitful and successful than before.

Dan Norman is an analyst at the Information Security Forum, the leading authority on cyber, information security and risk management. He is the project lead on the Human-Centred Security research series and author of the Threat Horizon series, which forecasts future threats to information security.

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