Burnout: The Hidden Cost of Working in Cybersecurity & Other High Risk Fields 

 June 20, 2023

By  Jane Frankland

Over the years, I’ve come close to burnout but in the fast-paced digital world, especially since the pandemic, burnout has become a silent epidemic. With long hours, tight deadlines, a constant demand for new innovations, and hybrid working, employees are feeling its effects more than ever. But although burnout is a prevalent issue, many people still feel uncomfortable discussing it openly. This lack of discussion worsens the problem, as the signs of burnout go unrecognised and the steps to prevent it remain unknown.

Since 2011, I’ve consistently spoken, and written about the dangers of burnout in cybersecurity, and proposed leadership strategies for employee wellbeing. Although I was ahead of the times then, I believe leaders now must prioritise the mental health and wellbeing of themselves and their teams. The stakes are simply too high to neglect this.

In this blog, and ahead of my talk at Infosec this week, I’m delving into this, and giving you tips for recognising its signs and preventing it as a leader. From leading in a High Challenge-High Support manner (which I go into later) to practicing self-care and setting realistic goals, there are various strategies you can implement to combat burnout.

Before you continue reading, you might want to check out my IN Focus journal and planner. Drawing on best practices, science-based tools, and over two decades worth of leadership experience, this will help you (or others, like your team) get clear and working in a more sustainable manner, so you don’t burn out or fall out of love with your profession.

So, let’s start with what burnout is.

The International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) classifies burnout as an occupational phenomenon. They define it is as,

“a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

The World Health Organisation, in 2019, recognised burnout as being caused by chronic workplace stress that is not successfully managed.

Why Solving Burnout Matters

Solving burnout is crucial for individuals, organisations, and society at large, as it adversely impacts the brain by impairing cognitive function, diminishing concentration and memory, and reducing the ability to make decisions.

Chronic stress, which is a leading cause of burnout, can also change the brain’s structure, affecting regions responsible for emotional regulation and stress response. And these changes increase the risk of developing anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

In business burnout (and stress) have a significant impact on workplace safety, resilience, productivity, innovation, and profits. Absenteeism, presenteeism, and job turnover all rise, and have a negative impact on an organisation’s bottom line.

According to Gartner, poor operational decision-making costs companies 3% of profits, or more. According to a McKinsey inefficient decision-making costs a typical Fortune 500 company 530,000 days of managers’ time each year, equivalent to about $250 million in annual wages. Their research shows that executives spend (on average) almost 40% of their time making decisions and believe most of that time is poorly used.

The Impact of Burnout in Cybersecurity

Even though we’ve all experienced feeling overwhelmed, and overworked at our jobs, the impact of burnout in cybersecurity can be far more damaging. It poses a threat in numerous ways.

Societies at large

As industry veteran and author of Mental Health in Cyber Security, Sarb Sembhi, points out in his paper (which we’ll both be discussing at Infosec Europe on Thurday), national cybersecurity strategies by governments in countries like the UK and US are reliant upon enterprises’ cyber resilience, which in turn is dependent upon the capabilities of cybersecurity teams and professionals.


When employees suffer from burnout, their brains become tired and less able to cope with the demands of their job. This increases the likelihood of making mistakes, such as clicking on phishing links, sharing data in insecure ways, using weak passwords, or not spotting cyber threat patterns.

Naturally, attackers take advantage. For example, by making their spear phishing campaigns more sophisticated, and by sending them in the afternoon, when they know employees are most likely to be more fatigued and distracted.

According to IBM, mistakes in cybersecurity are still so overwhelming that 95% (19 in 20) result from human error, and the global average total cost of a data breach is $4.35M.

Individuals in Cybersecurity

All these errors increase the workload for cybersecurity leaders and their teams who are buckling under the pressure. Many feel like they’re doing the workload of three due to talent shortages, or more recently tech layoffs and hiring freezes.

According to Tessian research, cybersecurity leaders work an average of 11-hours extra per week, with one in 10 working up to 24-hours extra a week. Much of this time is spent investigating and remediating threats caused by employee mistakes. But even when they’ve logged off, 60% of CISOs are struggling to switch off from work because of stress.

According to a report by Nominet in 2019, 91% of CISOs suffered moderate or high stress, with 17% either medicating or using alcohol to deal with job stress.

More recent research by AI Vectra, in 2022, found that half of UK cybersecurity chiefs are feeling burnt out and are considering resigning due to the immense pressure they’re under, 40% had been forced to seek help due to work-related stress such as migraines, panic attacks and high blood pressure, 51% experienced negative emotions such as depression, anger or anxiety, 56% said they had had sleepless nights worrying about work, while 42% claimed to have called in sick because they couldn’t face going into work.

The Cost of Burnout

Burnout carries with it extensive and far-reaching costs, both financial, emotional, and personal. Financially, burnout can result in a loss of earnings, medical expenses, and the need for counselling or therapy. Emotionally and personally, burnout can cause feelings of disconnection and demotivation, and put a strain on personal relationships. Stress may even contribute to divorce. A 2009 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that spouses who experienced greater stress outside of the relationship — e.g. related to work or friendships — perceived their relationship more negatively.

How to Recognise Symptoms

The cost of burnout is undeniably high but although it’s common, it’s not always easy to identify. Burnout often starts with minor issues like irritability and fatigue but can quickly escalate.

Recognising the signs and symptoms of burnout is crucial if you want to prevent it from taking control of your life. Although there are three distinct types, which I’ll go through in a moment, in yourself, you may notice a loss of motivation, satisfaction, and energy at work, a feeling of detachment, and a change in sleep, eating, drinking, or other self-medicating habits. In others, you may see a lack of engagement, cynicism, and irritability in their behaviour.

Resolving Burnout

When it comes to resolving burnout in the workplace, self-awareness of your personality type, whether you’re a neurodivergent, have an addictive personality, and other factors are crucial, for instance expected behaviour from family, loved ones, a Type A driven boss, and your self-worth.

Types of Burnout

There are several types of burnout that can occur (work-related, caregiver, academic, creative, existential, and autistic) which may be related to different causes and symptoms. Furthermore, they are not mutually exclusive and can overlap or co-occur in individuals. For the sake of this blog, I’m going to dig into three types of work-related burnout, and I’ll touch upon neurodivergent burnout, and women and burnout.

Workplace burnout

#1. Overload burnout

This often occurs when a person has an excessive workload and cannot keep up with the demands. It affects highly dedicated employees, and often entry level people who feel they have no choice other than to work at an unsustainable pace. As a result, they drive themselves to the point of physical and mental exhaustion.

This type of burnout is often seen in Type A personalities, top consultancies, and amongst leaders in what I refer to as a High Challenge-Low Support environments, see the diagram below.

How to recognise it:

  • You ensure youor work takes priority over your personal life and needs,
  • You invest more than is healthy in your commitment to your career ambitions,
  • You endanger your well-being to achieve your goals.

How to alleviate it:

  • Develop stronger emotion regulation skills, (e.g., name and process your emotions),
  • Reframe limiting beliefs and negative self-talk,
  • Separate your self-worth from your work – your worth is not your work,
  • Diversify your identity by investing in different areas of your life beyond work.

#2. Under challenged burnout

This is characterised by a feeling of boredom or emptiness due to a lack of intellectual stimulation, leading to disengagement with work. You’ll find this type of burnout in Low Challenge-Low Support or High Support-Low Challenge environments.

  • You’re bored and crave assignments and tasks that are more challenging,
  • You feel your job doesn’t offer you opportunities to develop your abilities, or advance and develop your talents.

How to alleviate it:

  • Get clear on what you want, i.e., your role, your leader, and your environment,
  • Remind your line manager of your skills and let him/ her know that you want to be challenged more,
  • Look for a new role in your existing company or outside of it,
  • Learn a new skill in the next month to motivate you.

#3. Neglect burnout

This is characterised by a sense of helplessness when faced with challenges, often resulting from insufficient structure, guidance, or direction in the workplace. This can lead to difficulty in meeting demands and expectations, causing feelings of frustration, incompetence, and uncertainty.

This type of burnout is often seen in High Challenge-Low Support, or Low Challenge-Low Support environments. However, it can also be found in High Support-Low Challenge environments as people there are taught to be reliant on direction from their leaders rather than by practicing self-agency.

How to recognise it:

  • You stop working when things don’t go as planned,
  • You believe your efforts are futile and that you’re incapable of making a positive difference in your circumstances,
  • You become passive, resorting to learned helplessness, and surrendering to obstacles or setbacks,
  • You feel demoralised upon waking up to another day at work.

How to alleviate it:

  • Reclaim control over your role by crafting a “don’t-do” list,
  • Identify tasks that can be outsourced, delegated, or delayed,
  • Set stronger boundaries at work,
  • Say no more often,
  • Discuss your workload with your line manager,
  • Pinpoint instances that evoke intense resentment, which serves as an emotional cue to establish healthier limits,

Neurodivergent Burnout

Neurodivergent burnout is a type of burnout that specifically affects individuals who are neurodivergent, which means their brains function differently than what is considered typical. This includes individuals with conditions such as autism, ADHD, and dyslexia. Neurodivergent burnout is caused by chronic stress related to trying to navigate a world that is not designed to accommodate their needs or differences. It can lead to a variety of symptoms, including exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, and emotional dysregulation. For example, autistic burnout is a specific manifestation of neurodivergent burnout that’s experienced by many individuals on the autism spectrum. It’s important for individuals who are neurodivergent to recognise their limits and take steps to practice self-care and avoid burnout, such as setting boundaries, seeking support, and finding environments that are supportive of their unique strengths and challenges.

Women and Burnout

Women are especially susceptible to all forms of burnout, despite generally being better than men at coping with stress. In cybersecurity many feel the pressure fit in and so to prove their capability work twice as hard as their male peers. Other women tell them this strategy is necessary if they want to succeed. But working in this manner is unsustainable and it’s no wonder why over 50% of women (under 35-years) leave tech mid career – double the rate of their male colleagues.

Decompressing & Unwinding After Work

Decompressing from work is essential to alleviate stress and maintain mental health and wellbeing. Creating healthy habits as part of a daily routine can be an effective way to decompress and promote relaxation. This could include practicing good sleep hygiene, eating a balanced diet, staying hydrated, engaging in regular exercise, journaling, practicing gratitude, meditation, mindfulness, and participating in yoga or other calming activities.

Let’s look at three of them:

  1. Sleep is essential for the body and mind to rest and rejuvenate. Without it for a short-term, you’ll likely feel emotionally drained and suffer from impaired thinking, and slow physical reactions. Prolonged sleep deprivation has drastic consequences, causing an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, cognitive decline, hormone imbalances, and dementia.
  2. The science of gratitude has shown that regularly practicing gratitude can have a positive impact on mental health, relationships, and overall well-being. McCraty and colleagues (cited in McCraty & Childre, 2004), in one of their studies on gratitude and appreciation, found that participants who felt grateful showed a marked reduction in the level of cortisol, the stress hormone. They had better cardiac functioning and were more resilient to emotional setbacks and negative experiences.
  3. There is robust evidence that meditation improves rapid memory recall. Catherine Kerr found that people who meditated were able to screen out distractions and increase their productivity more quickly than those that did not meditate. This ability to ignore distractions could explain “their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts” said the research. Regular meditation has also been found to reduce anxiety levels, as it helps to loosen the connections in the default network, including the medial prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for self-referential thinking. This loosening effect has a positive impact on reducing reactions to fear, strong emotions, and related bodily sensations, while also decreasing self-criticism and negative self-talk. Moreover, meditation strengthens the connection between the reasoning part of our brain and the fear centers and bodily sensation centers. This means that when we encounter distressing sensations or emotions, we are better equipped to observe them objectively and respond in a rational manner.
  4. According to research on gardening, researchers have found it improves life satisfaction and mood. Digging in the dirt really does lift your spirits as the digging stirs up microbes in the soil. Inhaling these microbes can stimulate serotonin production, which can make you feel relaxed and happier.

Each type of burnout can have a detrimental effect on both an employee and their organisation, making it essential to recognise and address these symptoms as soon as possible.

In the UK, if an employee has poor mental health, your employer has a ‘duty of care’ to take it seriously and with the same care as a physical illness. This means they must do all they reasonably can to support their employees’ health, safety and wellbeing, and a failure to do so makes them legally liable.

As an employee who’s dedicated, committed and prepared to work hard, it’s crucial for you to take responsibility and implement practices that promote well-being at work. Knowing what you want, setting boundaries, taking regular breaks, and prioritising self-care must become a non-negotiable aspect of your work routine. Additionally, learning to communicate your needs, asking for help when necessary, and recognising unhealthy working patterns.

As a leader, it’s essential you learn how to better lead, create environments of High Challenge-High Support so you can foster a culture that actively supports performance, psychological safety, and employee well-being.

As a representative from industry, please don’t allocate it to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), as sadly it will get burried there.

By adopting these practices, you can prevent burnout, increase productivity, the quality of your decision making, work, and achieve success in both your personal and professional lives.

Further Reading & Resources

Now I want to hear from you…

To find out about my training and coaching programs for leaders and emerging leaders, book a discovery call.

Did you enjoy this blog? Search for more blogs that you want to read!

Jane frankland


Jane Frankland is a cybersecurity market influencer, award-winning entrepreneur, consultant and speaker. She is the Founder of KnewStart and the IN Security Movement. Having held executive positions within her own companies and several large PLCs, she now provides agile, forward thinking organisations with strategic business solutions. Jane works with leaders of all levels and supports women in male dominated industries like cybersecurity and tech. Her book, IN Security: Why a failure to attract and retain women in cybersecurity is making us all less safe' is a best-seller.


Follow me

related posts:

Leave a Reply:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Get in touch