How tech leaders can reduce burnout and protect their most valuable employees

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IT and cybersecurity professionals are often the unsung heroes of an organization — underfunded, overworked and short-staffed despite their importance in keeping sensitive business and customer data safe. It’s no wonder these employees are vulnerable to burnout — chronic workplace stress that results in mental and physical exhaustion. In fact, a recent survey found that almost half (47%) of cybersecurity incident responders say they’ve experienced burnout or extreme stress over the past 12 months.

Striving to achieve a better work-life balance is no new concept and this was only heightened following the pandemic. While employees may frequently see tips or messaging about what to do to reduce burnout (such as setting work-life boundaries or taking time off), in truth these actions can be much harder to put into practice at an individual level, and can be extremely difficult to manage and support from the leadership perspective. If not implemented into a company’s cultural core, ad hoc relief tactics may grant employees temporary release, but will never truly stop the cycle of chronic burnout. For leaders to ensure that balance becomes a workplace norm, leadership must start with stepping in and doing intentional, routine work from the top down.

The work-from-home movement also brought an increase in cyberattacks and data breaches — up 15.1% in 2021, according to one report. Eliminating burnout among tech and cybersecurity professionals is not just good for company morale and employee retention, it is also essential to ensuring the overall safety of the organization. Here, I share my top recommendations for how leaders can reduce burnout in their organizations while balancing this effort with the essential work IT professionals handle.

The truth about PTO

Many organizations recognize the importance of taking time off work to rest and recharge, and encourage their employees to take advantage of their paid time off (PTO), but talk only goes so far. If an IT administrator, for example, is completely underwater with responsibilities that are key to keeping a company up and running, they may not feel comfortable taking time off, or push it off until a time when they are less busy — a time that never arrives. Or, even worse, they are the only person on their team and there is no one to cover for them when they do request to take that time off.

To circumvent this, I have instituted at many of the companies where I’ve had leadership positions the concept of “Down Days.” This is a program where different groups within a company have a required day to disconnect from work separate from their normal PTO. The intent is to have the employee do something just for them — whether they enjoy hiking, going to the movies, or gardening — and then upon return to work the next day, they can share with their team what they did. This serves to bring teams closer together and provide time off simply to rest, as opposed to taking time off for a specific reason (such as a doctor’s appointment or a sick day).

I grew up and spent the start of my career in the UK, and I, like many, have noticed a major cultural difference in the way people take time off in the U.S. versus in Europe. People in Europe take full advantage of the time off they are given, but in the U.S., many in the IT industry will save up their PTO, allowing it to roll over to the next year and cashing out when they move on from the job. We as leaders need to change the concept of earned PTO and shift to flexible PTO that everyone is encouraged to take to ensure separation from work and relaxation.

Down Days and flexible PTO offer a good alternative to this mindset of hoarding PTO, and to policies that seek to solve this by requiring employees to use their PTO during a certain time frame or else lose it. While likely well-intentioned, such requirements only serve to create another kind of barrier for employees seeking to take time off.

Burnout prevention starts at the hiring stage

Creating a culture of trust in your organization is one of the most important aspects of preventing burnout. Requiring your employees to stay on for long hours, or heavily monitoring their work, only adds more to their plate and wastes time. To allow employees to do their jobs effectively, and in a way in which they enjoy coming to work, leaders need to trust that their employees will get the work done.

This means hiring on the basis of values, rather than just skills. Skills can be taught, but if a person’s values do not align with those of the company, it will be difficult to maintain a workforce that you can trust and that embodies the energy of your corporate culture. I look for employees who are flexible, team players who leave egos behind. They need to have a fundamental sense of morality — that is, thinking in terms of making things better rather than just making money. 

Once you employ these talented and smart people, your main job as a leader is to create an environment where they can excel. This means putting strategies in place to prevent overworking employees and placing a greater emphasis on output, rather than hours worked.

Be the change you want to see

Creating a culture shift like this must start at the top. It really is the CEO’s responsibility to set an example and an expectation that reducing burnout is a priority.

Leaders can start on this journey by stepping back and building clarity around what’s most important to their company, or more specifically, to their unique teams. Everyone has an ever-expanding to-do list, and some tasks can feel tedious or pointless. It’s important to emphasize how tasks at every role map back to overall business goals. This can remind employees of their purpose and show how they are actively contributing to the company and creating impact from their work while pushing aside unneeded pressure on tasks that do not contribute to the overall vision.

Additionally, bringing IT professionals into wider company conversations will not only help your company to run more smoothly, but educate others in the company on what the IT team’s role is and why it is so essential. This will reduce the workload on these employees, making them more than just a dumping ground in the eyes of those not involved in IT.

Making burnout prevention a priority is essential to keeping your employees happy, healthy and productive, driving better results for your business and your team. Affording employees the time and mental headspace to contribute new ideas will help to retain them and drive their growth through the company. If the industry continues to take IT and cybersecurity professionals for granted, I have no doubt that innovation and security with suffer as a result.

David Bennett is a tech veteran and a seasoned channel executive with more than 30 years of IT channel leadership, currently as CEO of Object First, which aims to reduce ransomware and simplify data protection.

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