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Managing stress and avoiding burnout as a CISO

This blog has been written by Jitender Arora, Deloitte’s CISO for North and South Europe

The rapid evolution of digital landscapes has led to mounting pressure on CISOs. The imperative to manage cyber risks, maintain organisational security, meet increasing business demands and adapt to emerging threats places us in a persistent high-stress environment. This blog delves into effective stress management strategies for CISOs, focusing on techniques that can enhance personal well-being, ward off burnout, and ensure optimal professional performance.

Recognising stress and burnout

Stress is an insidious companion that sneaks upon us. Initially, we might mistake our struggle as a personal failing, believing that increased effort and resilience will solve the issue. But disregarding stress can lead to burnout - a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged stress. Symptoms range from physical discomfort, such as headaches, aches, pains, and sleep disturbances, to emotional signs like anxiety, depression, and mood swings. Being a F1 fan, I use the analogy of cars to explain this. If we keep running the car on high RPM, engine heats up and gasket blows up, a CISO running on high RPM will inevitably experience a breakdown like engine. It’s crucial to acknowledge these signs and act before they escalate.

Putting on your oxygen mask first: self-care and mindfulness

As in-flight safety instructions, you must put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. Similarly, attending to your physical, mental, and emotional well-being is a priority. Engage in regular exercise, maintain a healthy diet, ensure sufficient sleep, and practice mindfulness. This may involve meditation, deep breathing exercises, or simply pausing regularly to check-in with your body and mind. E.g., I take few minutes to do deep breathing and relax going from one call to another as it helps my mind with context switching and decision fatigue. I also ask myself at the end of every day how am I feeling end of everyday how am I feeling and this question allows me to get in tune with my body and mind and take corrective actions. It works.

Effective prioritisation and boundary setting

One of the most effective stress management tools is prioritisation. Identify the most pressing cyber risks facing your organisation, then create a strategic plan to address them. Moreover, learn to say 'no' or 'let me think about it' before committing to tasks. Rehearse phrases like “Let me give this some thought. We may need to re-prioritise some things”, to prevent being overwhelmed by obligations. We can’t do everything because we are not superhumans even though others may see us like one.

Empowering a strong team

A strong team can drastically lighten a CISO's load. Invest in recruiting and retaining talented professionals, fostering a culture of continuous learning and improvement. Effective delegation is key: trusting your team with their responsibilities lets you focus on strategic initiatives, thus reducing stress and the risk of burnout. While you delegate, it’s also important to protect your leaders and teams from burnout. We can’t delegate stress and burnout.

Building a robust support network

The unique challenges faced by CISOs necessitate a strong support network. It’s important to have a support structure around you of trusted colleagues whether in your immediate team, your organisation or close friends outside organisation. There are times when you will need help and that’s the time you need to lean on your support structure. Being vulnerable is a sign of strength and not weakness. Ask for help when you need it, people around you will respect you for that and rise up to the occasion when you need them. Sharing experiences and strategies can offer stress relief and provide valuable insights for managing your role more effectively.

Setting achievable expectations

While ambition is important, unrealistic expectations often lead to stress and disappointment. Be honest about what can be achieved given your resources and time constraints. This will maintain a balanced workload and encourage goal-setting that is ambitious yet feasible.

Staying Current: embracing continuous learning

With the constantly evolving cyber security landscape, staying informed is vital to managing stress and staying competitive. Dedicate time to learning the latest trends, technologies, and best practices. By nurturing a growth mindset, you can adapt to emerging threats and stay ahead.

Final reflections: preserving wellness and performance

The challenge of managing stress as a CISO is ongoing, but it is critical to prioritise your well-being to effectively guide your organisation's cyber security efforts. By acknowledging stress, prioritising self-care, setting realistic expectations, and building a strong team and network, you can ward off burnout and thrive in your role as a CISO. Remember, an organisation has a continuity plan, your loved ones don't!

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About the author:

Jitender Arora

Jitender(Jit) is a Partner and Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) for Deloitte North and South Europe (NSE). In his role, he is responsible for establishing and maintaining the security vision, strategy, and program to ensure business and clients are protected against ever growing cyber threats.

Jit has worked in the technology and security industry for over 22+ years. He has held a wide range of senior leadership roles in financial services, professional services and technology organisations. I have strong experience in cybersecurity, cyber resilience, technology risk, operational resilience and operational risk domains. He is an expert with a proven track record of success in strategy definition and execution, leading business transformation initiatives, managing efficient operations, building and managing CxO and board level relationships.

Jit is very passionate about diversity and inclusion and leads various initiatives to make our society and workplace more inclusive.