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Is Burnout Causing Staffing Shortages — Or Worse?

Public- and private-sector organizations are facing staffing shortages, especially in technical positions. But don’t forget to take care of your current staff, who may be struggling with burnout.

Wherever you look there are staff vacancies. All across the U.S. in late October 2021, we see “Help Wanted” signs. From truck drivers to cybersecurity pros, the staffing shortages are even reaching crisis levels for some — with many saying the worse is still yet to come.

And this new reality inevitably leads to another important question: What about the current work team? How are you taking care of them?

One of my favorite responses to these staffing shortages came from a fast-food restaurant I recently visited. While I was waiting in line in their drive-through for an unusually long time, I saw a hand-made sign just before I ordered. It said something like this: “We apologize for the long wait, but please don’t take out your frustration on the heroes who showed up for work.”

My response: Wow. That is so true. I was moved by that sign, and even said an extra “thank you” and gave a tip to the kind lady who served me.

PRESS COVERAGE OF WORKER SHORTAGES ran a great piece on this topic entitled "The Great Resignation: Why millions of workers are quitting":

“In August 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs. While some people have left the workforce entirely, job security and better pay are top concerns for others.

"The quits rate, which is measured against total employment, rose to a series high of 2.9% in August, according to the Labor Department’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey.

“'We were all able to take a step back in the last year and spend more time doing other things and really question the value of what we’re doing at work,' said Anthony Klotz, a management professor at Texas A&M University. 'A number of people have made the decision, "I need to make a change."’ 

"Dubbed 'The Great Resignation,' the exodus of workers has created hiring challenges for companies and left millions of jobs unfilled.  

"More than half of U.S. workers surveyed said they plan to look for a new job in the coming year, according to Bankrate’s August job seeker survey. Some 56% of respondents said adjustable working hours and remote work are a priority.”

In a town hall meeting on Oct. 21, 2021, President Joe Biden addressed this topic on CNN:

“MR. [ANDERSON] COOPER: And welcome back. We are live at a CNN Town Hall event in Baltimore, Maryland, with President Joe Biden.

"So, before we get to our next question, I want to just bring up the current labor market shortages. Millions of jobs are unfilled, businesses are struggling to meet demand. Is there anything you can do to either encourage people to go back to work or make jobs more attractive that they want to go back to work?

"THE PRESIDENT: First of all, we’ve created more jobs in the first eight months of my administration than any President in American history — total number of jobs created. 

But the problem for the people not going back to work is twofold. Number one, they’re reluctant to go back to work because they’re afraid of COVID — many of them. So they don’t want to go back and they don’t want to be exposed to either the customers because they’re not required to wear masks or not required to have shots, or they don’t want to go back because they’re not sure of the people waiting on them and they — at the table, or the people coming up in the food market. So, a lot of it has to do with COVID. Number one. …

"But here’s the deal: The second thing — the second thing that has happened, Anderson, is that people are now using this as an opportunity to say, 'Wait a minute, do I want to go back to that $7-an-hour job?'

"I won’t name the particular restaurant chain, but they found out when they — they couldn’t hire anybody. When they found out, they started to pay 20 bucks an hour, everybody wanted to go back to work. Not a joke. 

"So what you see is wages are actually up for those who are working, because for the first time in a long time, employees are able to bargain. 'You’re the boss? You want me to work for you? What are you going to pay me? How are you going to do it?' I’m not being facetious. 

"The third thing that’s out there is there’s a circumstance that exists where people are really worried about what they’re going to do — I mean, how — how can I say this? 

"How many people do you know — and maybe some in this audience — who, because of what you’ve been through — a loss of a husband, wife, brother, mother, father, son, whatever — or you’ve had something that’s really impacted you with COVID that you really find yourself just down? I mean just down. And so, there’s a lot of people who are just down. They’re not sure how to get back in the game. They’re not sure whether they want to get back in the game.”


Turning to how this current situation is impacting cybersecurity teams around the world, I encourage you to read this Dark Reading article on employee burnout:

“Even when operating at our best, we have limitations. Working at high levels every day without breaks can quickly lead to burnout and stress. Even as burnout becomes a more widely acknowledged threat, employees are expected to perform consistently and with the same level of enthusiasm and intrinsic motivation to 'get things done' every day. We must remember that people aren't machines and expectations for human performance can be notoriously unrealistic. We're limited in how much and how quickly we can process information. We are limited in how many things we can perceive and pay attention to at one time. We are limited by how much time there is in a day. Add to that the heightened stress of a global pandemic and you have an easy recipe for burned-out workers looking for the easiest solution to get through the day.

“In a recent survey of over 3,000 people, 55% said they felt at risk of burnout.

“However, the impact of burnout extends far beyond the negative outcomes of poor cyber hygiene, such as compromised accounts and ransomware. As energy and motivation dwindle, people find innovative ways to reduce effort while still reaching their goals. Burnout compels people to engage in workarounds to retain energy to complete their tasks. This means that every time-consuming security behavior that makes it more difficult to share files, access critical assets, or use business applications is in direct competition with how employees need to spend their energy. One way we see the impact is in the widespread use of unapproved technologies: Recent studies reveal that 46% of employees use shadow IT to more easily perform job duties.”

This article was highlighted by my friend Mike Davis, who I interviewed for this blog back in March 2021. He encourages cybersecurity managers and team leads to go out of their way now to check on staff.

Mike wrote this: “I am sure we all feel or sense this (over 50% do from their survey) ... it also drives up shadow IT use. They recommend adding this factor to risk assessments, I would start with a security team chat on their current work environment, clarify and prioritize tasks, capture pain points and collectively assess how best to optimize their efforts, including training ... So do it, set up a team chat, take care of your folks!”


I recently wrote an article for Government Technology to highlight strategies to rethink attracting and retaining talent. I also wrote this blog about longer-term technology answers to staff shortages in technical areas.

But I want to highlight the urgent need now for taking care of your staff — and those who are showing up. They are carrying the extra load as people leave.

Take Mike’s advice and talk to your team about how they are feeling about work. Are they feeling down, as the president said in his town hall event?

Finally, reread some helpful content regarding burnout for cyber pros and also these tips to overcome burnout by being "off balance on purpose."
Daniel J. Lohrmann is an internationally recognized cybersecurity leader, technologist, keynote speaker and author.