Employee Experience

How CIOs Can Prevent Employee Burnout

IT leaders need to find ways to make workloads and stress more manageable, even as people return to the office.

If organizations have proved resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic, much of credit should go to their IT departments. But success has taken a toll, and employee burnout among IT workers is near an all-time high.

At Intel, within 72 hours of California’s March 19, 2020, stay-at-home order, the company had set up most of its 110,000 employees to work remotely. This meant doubling its VPN capacity, repurposing and distributing old laptops, and helping employees secure their home devices—all while continuing to maintain Intel’s manufacturing operations and support its customers. 

“It was all hands on deck for us,” said Archie Deskus, Intel’s CIO. 

The result was an increase in the number of employees who felt overworked and stressed out. More than 68% of Intel employees reported feelings of burnout, according to an April 2020 survey by Blind, an anonymous professional network. That was up from more than 53% just two months earlier. The Blind survey also found that 74% of engineering and technology employees were suffering from burnout, a similar increase of 15% over the same time period.

Peak job burnout

The World Health Organization classifies job burnout as an “occupational phenomenon,” caused by chronic workplace stress and characterized by feelings of exhaustion and negativism leading to reduced effectiveness at work. The stresses of work during the pandemic—loss of connection with colleagues, long hours and the impossibility of separating work and home life—have driven burnout rates to all-time highs

Previous crises, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 2008 recession, were job-stress inducers but more limited, says Andrew J. Shatté, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of meQuilibrium, a company that helps employees cope with workplace stress. “The pandemic changed everything because it hit every industry and every family,” he says.

Technology workers suffered more burnout than any other group, according to a June 2020 meQuilibrium survey of 7,000 employees. IT employees had greater increases in job stress, sleep disorders, burnout and lack of motivation than any other profession, says Shatté, who serves as meQuilibrium’s chief knowledge officer. 

The problem has been especially acute for cybersecurity professionals. They have been tasked with securing thousands of new computers and mobile devices so people can work from home. Remote workers, stressed themselves, are not always careful about following security practices. Cyberattacks have spiked by nearly 400%, along with an explosion of security alerts that demand a response.

[Read also: Six steps to be ready for a security incident]

With the home/work divide dissolved, people are working all hours of the day and are more exposed to external threats. That means information security teams have to work even longer hours to protect them, says Steve Zalewski, interim chief information security officer (CISO) for Levi Strauss & Co. 

“You start seeing fatigue and burnout across the security organization,” he says. “And that’s when people start to make mistakes.”

Managing and preventing employee burnout 

How can enterprises respond? Technology and better employee support can reduce job-related stress, boost engagement and help ease feelings of burnout. 

Improved communication and explicit management backing are good places to start. In the meQuilibrium study, employees who felt strongly supported at work were 10 times less likely to experience increased job stress than those who lacked support. 

Organizations that allow employees to take time during the work day to homeschool their kids or handle other personal matters enjoy a happier, more engaged workforce, Shatté says. 

At Intel, managers offered employees additional time off, new wellness benefits and expanded Q&A sessions with business leaders, Deskus says. A new portal for employees also provided tips on how to work remotely, and “sip and socialize” virtual happy hours helped colleagues blow off steam. The company says it will soon conduct an employee engagement survey to see how workers’ needs have evolved through the crisis.

While better communication and support can be an immediate salve for employee burnout, technology has a big part to play in solving the problem long-term, especially for IT and security roles. Artificial intelligence tools, for example, can help reduce burnout by automating repetitive tasks and reducing the volume of mundane work, says Frank Dickson, vice president of security and trust at research firm IDC. 

Security teams face an overwhelming number of stress-inducing alerts: new threats and threat signatures, unexpected behaviors, unusual activity patterns and the like. Many of them are false alarms or minor problems, but all must be assessed and acted on. 

That’s where AI-based threat-monitoring tools can help. The tools can automatically identify and block many of the attacks, leaving human teams to deal with the ones that require direct intervention, says Sue Bergamo, CISO at Precisely, a provider of data-quality services. 

“No human person could take on that kind of workload,” Bergamo says. “AI is a game changer when it comes to security.” 

Embracing the next normal 

Even as the pandemic subsides, employee burnout isn’t likely to go away. (After all, the Blind survey found that 62% of tech workers were suffering before COVID-19 hit.) Managers will still need to identify early signs of burnout, and business leaders will have to work harder to instill a sense of purpose in their employees, Shatté says.

Sometimes the solution is just to take off some of the pressure. After all, losing valuable employees to stress-related job burnout may pose a greater threat to the business than a minor security breach.

Already pressed to the limit, security teams must be more realistic about what they can achieve with limited resources, and what parts of the business need the most protection, says Levi’s Zalewski. “At the end of the day, you have to accept more risk,” he says.

Dan Tynan
Dan Tynan is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in Adweek, Fast Company, The Guardian, Wired, and too many other publications to mention.