We need to talk about burnout in the tech industry

Oz Alashe MBE

Oz Alashe MBE, CEO of Cybsafe

Oz Alashe MBE, CEO at CybSafe shared his thoughts with Business Leader regarding burnout within the tech sector.

Chances are you’ve heard of burnout before. The term was first coined in the 1970s, and although its exact definition has been subject to debate over the following decades, it has become increasingly linked with work-related stress, culminating with the World Health Organisation officially designating it as an occupational phenomenon in 2019.

The nature of burnout is sadly something many will be familiar with to some degree. Feelings of energy depletion, increased mental distance, negativity towards one’s job, and falling performance standards are all signs we may be experiencing some form of burnout, especially if such symptoms are felt over an extended length of time.

Sadly, symptoms of burnout will be all-too recognisable for those working in the tech industry. A post-pandemic study revealed 62% of cyber security professionals found their role stressful, which no doubt contributes towards the industry’s high turnover rate.

If such stresses were already a problem, the past year has done little to alleviate the issue. The pandemic has seen the lines between work and home become blurred, combined with increased anxieties about the health and wellbeing of our loved ones. These factors have further amplified the growing concern of burnout in the tech industry. Just over a year since the pandemic began, another study has found tech professionals to be the most likely to see their mental health decline.

It’s clear more needs to be done to address this problem. Leaders in the industry need to ensure tech professionals get the right support and are encouraged to be honest about suffering from burnout. Not only is this the right thing to do on a moral level, but it also makes business sense too. A comprehensive wellbeing strategy means more productivity and a lower turnover rate, resulting in greater long-term stability for any organisation.

So how do we achieve this? Particularly in the tech industry, we fall short in starting the necessary conversations on the matter. Vulnerability and empathy are rarely treated as the strengths they are, with too much emphasis placed on persevering no matter what pressures are faced. To tackle this, it’s clear leaders need to adopt a comprehensive approach that starts from the top.

It starts with leadership

No one is impervious to the effects of burnout. Regardless of our role or seniority, we can all feel its impact in some fashion. Before I entered the tech world, I spent a number of years serving in the UK Armed Forces. It’s fair to say that during my service, I found myself in a great deal of stressful situations. My past has shown me that stress can manifest itself in many different ways, and from a variety of circumstances.

Being a C-level employee doesn’t make you immune to such burdens. Leadership and responsibility can weigh heavily on one’s shoulders. We need to change our attitudes about such pressures and learn to be more open with ourselves in discussing them. We can’t help our employees with burnout and stress if we’re not honest about our own struggles.

By being comfortable in showing vulnerability, leaders can make it easier for everyone in the organisation to follow suit. It’s a case where leadership by example can have a positive effect in creating a more honest and understanding workplace culture.

Long term strategies to tackle burnout

Addressing preconceptions and opening communication channels between leaders and employees is an important first step, but it is just the start in terms of what can be done to tackle burnout. There are a number of initiatives and strategies that may seem simple on the surface, but when actioned together can go a long way in providing a support network to help address the problem.

Listening is critical. We can’t expect employees to feel confident in opening up about stress and burnout if we don’t make the effort to hear them. This applies to daily behaviour, like taking the time during the day to ensure you are available to talk one-on-one about any topic, but also on a more long-term, structural basis. At CybSafe, we run bi-annual surveys to give members of the tribe the chance to be honest about how we can do more as a team to support one another. Having a voice, and therefore a degree of control and influence, helps address the feeling of helplessness that is often part of burnout.

Sometimes what’s needed is simply to take a step back and give yourself time to realign. People suffering from burnout can often lose perspective and feel trapped in the moment, unable to break out of a cycle of negativity. Providing the opportunity to break that cycle can be a huge benefit.

At CybSafe we give team members the option of a career break should they want it. High turnover remains a huge problem in the tech industry, so giving employees the option of an extended break can help provide the balance they require before they feel the need to leave an organisation altogether. Even if an employee never takes it up, simply having the option there can help alleviate feelings of helplessness and stress.

These are just a couple of examples of what organisations can do to help support employees with burnout. Ultimately, each business will have its own strategies that work best and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But all endeavours need to be underpinned by daily behaviours.

It’s often the small changes that can have the biggest impact. By being open with ourselves, and taking the time to listen, we can begin to address the problem of burnout in the industry and create a better working culture in tech.