Dr. Sagar Samtani is an Assistant Professor in the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University (IU) and a Grant Thornton Scholar. His research interests are in cyber-threat intelligence. Dr. Samtani is also an executive advisory council member for the CompTIA ISAO. Edlin Garcia is a Ph.D. student studying mental health literacy in the School of Public Health at IU.
Significant attention from industry, academia and the government has been given to reducing the substantial shortfall of trained IT professionals in cybersecurity, systems administration and more. Many IT professionals often start their career bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, excited to be embarking on a hot career path. However, this excited disposition can quickly fade when the high pressure and constant fire-fighting aspects of the profession set in. If not handled properly, these issues can cause acute and chronic mental health concerns, including stress, depression and anxiety.
A common approach may be to self-medicate (e.g., with alcohol) or just deal with it. However, there are healthy ways to address significant stressors and decrease one’s risk or susceptibility to resulting mental health concerns. Below are five common mental health stressors that IT professionals face and proactive, healthy strategies to address them.
5 Mental Health Stressors
1. Learning a New Language
Stressor: IT is a field with many complicated terms and acronyms. IT pros may face significant growing pains or beat themselves up while learning this new language. However, it is essential to realize that this learning takes time and is entirely normal – so be patient with yourself!
Strategy: Use your resources, or start creating some! Ask if there’s an onboarding manual that guides where you are expected to be after your first couple of months. And find out if there are resources, such as a cheat sheet for all these acronyms. No need to reinvent the wheel if there are resources out there.
If no such resource exists, work with your supervisor and colleagues to create one. Make it a collaborative effort so that everyone can both contribute to and access the resource.
2. Slow to Be Praised, Quick to Be Blamed
Stressor: Akin to cornerbacks in football, if IT pros do their job well, then no one will notice that they are there. However, the flip side is that IT pros, particularly analysts in security operations centers, are often quickly blamed for anything that can go wrong (e.g., cyber-shamed for a breach). Consequently, there may be significant stress around job security. If unmanaged, the stress can turn into chronic anxiety.
Strategy: IT pros must have candid conversations with their employers about the protocols if something goes wrong and in what situations would job security be a concern. Having these conversations early and often can help alleviate significant stress around job security and increase the frequency of praise that is given and received.
3. Being Used for Exploration of Issues
Stressor: IT professionals, especially those in smaller organizations, are often required to conduct significant reconnaissance, forensics or exploratory tasks of possible issues in an ad-hoc manner. Examples may include searching the dark web for possible malicious content, extracting illegal materials from a terminated employee's workstation and more.
Oftentimes, these experiences can cause significant feelings of sorrow, grief and sadness that, if unattended to, can compound long-term mental health concerns.
Strategy: The big key here – do not to let it bottle up! See a therapist and find ways for healthy release.
4. Night Shifts
Stressor: Keeping IT systems secure is a 24/7 task. Like needing nurses and doctors to care for humans at all hours of the day, IT professionals must ensure systems throughout the night. Working night shifts can be stressful, especially if you are not a night owl or don’t have a set routine of sleeping 7 to 9 hours during the day. The night shift can mess with your circadian rhythm and increase your risk for other health concerns.
Strategy: If you enjoy the night shift, make sure you practice behaviors that can reduce daytime sleep discomfort. Take a quick nap during your nighttime break, limit your post-work activities and let your friends and family know your schedule. Having a routine and keeping others aware is an effective way to reduce interruptions and keep you connected.
If the night shift is not for you, consider planning with your employer to rotate out of that role. Talk with your employer; negotiate, prepare for yourself.
5. No Real Off Time
Stressor: “Can you fix my computer?” This question, although innocuous, is often posed by friends and family, sometimes during the weekends, holidays, birthdays or other off-the-clock times for IT pros. These behaviors from loved ones can often cause IT pros to feel that they are in an always-on mode and can never truly recharge their batteries.
Strategy: Set boundaries and enjoy time away from work to unplug. If you want to help friends and family – or can’t say no for other reasons – find ways to set them up for success without diminishing your break. Schedule a time to help them or connect them with other resources.
Your physical and mental health comes first. Practicing self-care includes knowing when to say no and setting those boundaries to keep you safe and healthy.
Conclusion: Remember Your Why
IT professionals are the backbone of organizations in the 21st century. You likely have excellent, or even altruistic, reasons for selecting this career path. Write these reasons down! Focusing on why you got into IT and what you love about it, as well as practicing the strategies listed above, can help you maintain a positive mental health posture in the long term.
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