This is a five-part series about getting a job, keeping a job, and staying healthy as you progress in your career as an information security professional. There is no one way to do things, rather there are many. I won’t cover all advice, or THE advice, I will offer my advice. Some of the information covered in this series is also found in my book; Unsecurity, chapter 10.
The series consists of the following articles:
This is the fifth and final installment in the series; Staying Healthy. After this I’ll wrap the entire series together, do some editing, and make this a short ebook for anyone who’s interested.
Staying Healthy – Introduction
Caveat: This is where I’m a hypocrite. I will give advice that I don’t follow myself. The (sad) fact is I’ve established habits (some good and some bad) over the years that have become very ingrained into the way I do things. Throughout this article I will share more about my experiences because it’s what I know best. From these experiences, I will offer advice that you can take or leave. If you can follow the advice in this article, you’ll be healthier.
So many of us are passionate about what we do. We love information security, we love helping people, and we can easily take things too seriously if we’re not careful.
I’ll speak for myself here for a second. I love my job, I love the people I work with everyday, and I love the people I get to serve. All this love makes my job not a job. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Sure. It would be, if I didn’t need sleep, or friends, or family, or exercise, or everything else that makes for a health lifestyle. If I were left to my own devices, you would find me dead behind a keyboard, doing what I’m always doing… work.
Thank God I’m not left to my own devices. I’ve got loving support and accountability, both of which are important to health and longevity. These things have served me well so far as I’ve survived more than 25 years in this industry. It’s not that I’m completely unhealthy, I’m just not as healthy as I should be.
Obviously, I don’t know everyone in our industry, but I can’t help thinking that I’m not all that unique. I think many of us work more hours than we should. I think many of us don’t exercise enough. I think many of us don’t eat as well as we should. I think most of us could use a little more sleep. Fine, but is this a problem?
Our jobs come with stress. I don’t think we know if it’s more or less stress than other jobs, but I’m not all that concerned about other jobs. I’m concerned about information security jobs. Here’s some recent news and studies about our stress and health:
CISOs appear to be stressed.
CISO Burnout is Real, Survey Finds – Based on interviews with 408 CISOs around the world. 1 in 4 CISOs suffer from physical or mental health issues due to stress. A little less tha 1 in 5 turn to alcohol or medication. More than half have trouble turning off work, meaning they’re not able to completely disconnect from work to focus on other things, healthy things.
It’s not just CISOs either. I think all security professionals struggle with stress.
- Advanced persistent stress: Why security pros need rituals – “advanced persistent stress, refers to the human beings who must manage the internal stress of being under constant cyber attack, including advanced persistent threats”
- Stress, bad workplace cultures are still driving security folk to drink
- Talks at BlackHat last year (2018) included titles like “Mental Health Hacks: Fighting Burnout, Depression and Suicide in the Hacker Community” and “Holding on for Tonight: Addiction in Infosec”.
The stress isn’t even isolated to information security professionals. Even the non-professionals are feeling it.
- Cybersecurity’s insidious new threat: workforce stress
- Employees suffering higher levels of ‘cyber stress’ in workplace
- According to a report authored by Kaspersky (The State of Cyber-Stress), “the majority of adults – 81 percent of Americans and 72 percent of Canadians – admit that the news of data breaches has caused them stress.”
OK, so it looks like there’s plenty of stress to go around, and I don’t think it’s going to get better anytime soon. Two things would be sad to see, two things that I’m hoping you and I will avoid:
- Burning out, or leaving our industry because of it’s unhealthy affects.
- Sticking it out, not living a life of joy, then retiring in mental or physical pain.
If there’s anything I can do to help you to avoid these things, I’m committed to that!
Sometimes, working as an information security professional is a lonely job. We get so focused in the tasks and challenges we face some days. The tasks and challenges can start to become a part of who we are.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes it’s difficult to pull myself out of the work that I’m doing and get back into other parts of my life. When I get home some days (or nights) and I need to unwind, I don’t know where to share my thoughts or feelings for/from the day. If I do share, I feel like the person I’m sharing with doesn’t understand what it’s really like.
I wonder if other information security professionals feel the same way.
The best support structure we have in our lives is our family. I’m convinced of this. Invest your time, energy, and soul into your family relationships, starting with your spouse/partner, and then your children, if you have them. No matter what you may think, family must come first. In return, you will likely get support beyond anything you deserve.
Note to those who don’t have a family or those with unhealthy family relationships. I have an extra amount of respect for you because I think your road is a little (or a lot) more difficult, and I admire your strength.
I’m not a family or marriage counselor. I only write from my own experiences on this matter. Without the support of my wife and my family, I wouldn’t be close to where I am today. My wife is my greatest cheerleader, and she make’s the stresses of my job melt away (on most days).
I can’t overemphasize the importance of family support.
Here’s mention of a mentor again. I’ve mentioned mentorship in at least three of the articles in this series. Mentors are helpful in so many ways, and getting one is well worth your investment of time and energy. I suggest you find one.
Associations and Trade Groups
Advice from someone who has been there before comes with credibility like no other advice can. There’s something that feels good about being with your own kind too. People in good information security associations (or chapters of associations) are a valuable asset and support structure for you as you rise through the ranks. Initially, you may consume more than you give, but in time the tides will shift and it will be your time to give.
Here’s a list of information security associations from Cybersecurity Ventures. Try a couple groups out, if you don’t feel like you’re getting the support you need, try a different one.
Co-workers and Friends
My experiences have varied with confiding in co-workers and friends, and in seeking advice from them about my career. Mileage varies, and the advice falls somewhere between healthy and destructive. Sharing things with co-workers can sometimes lead to gossip and political crap that makes things worse (at least for someone). Friends sometimes just want to have fun, and will have trouble relating to my work life. Use discernment here.
No matter how tough, or how cool you think you are. You need support. Everyone does. The earlier you setup your support structure, the better.
Supporting us doesn’t mean cheering us on and making us feel better all the time. The right type of support comes from someone who loves us. It comes from someone who wants what’s best for us. If someone really supports you, or loves you, they’ll always tell you the truth. Sometimes the truth doesn’t feel good, and neither does accountability.
Find support that will tell you the truth and hold you accountable. For me, this starts with my wife. I also have amazing management teams at FRSecure and SecurityStudio who won’t let me stray too far off the path.
Personally, this is my hardest fight. I am not a person who understands balance very well, if at all. You see, I have an addictive personality. People with addictive personalities struggle with finding balance more than other people do. This was part of what I alluding to when I mentioned earlier that I would work myself into the grave if I was left to my own devices. I am a work addict, and that’s not good. I have my other additions too which just complicates matters. This is another reason why a health support structure (or system) is critical.
Why is balance so important, if it’s not obvious?
There are (at least) two truths here:
- Everything in our lives requires some semblance of balance, otherwise everything falls apart.
- Everyone has a different balance, so be careful thinking what works for someone else will work for you.
Balance in your life between family, friends, work, play, etc. is healthy. The sooner you find your balance, the better off you will be. Make adjustments here and there, change your schedule until you get it right. Use your support structure to help you along the way.
The fact that your balance isn’t the same as someone else’s balance should come as no surprise to you. Some people are in balance working 40 hours a week, some are in balance working 60. Some people are in balance when they spend entire weekends with their family, while others work some on weekends. Be careful judging others, and be careful not to think that their balance should be yours. Your balance is your balance.
Find balance and stick to it. Don’t let someone else, even your job, disrupt your balance.
Healthy habits do wonders for how you feel and perform. Your mood, your relationships, and your work all benefit greatly. Maintaining your health is important for life, let alone to your job performance and career longevity. For me this is also hard, it’s hard to find time for church, exercise, and rest. Between work, family, friends, and everything else in life, I don’t have any hours left in my week.
There are people who can live a balanced life, accomplish much, and still create the necessary margin to focus on their health. These people are to be admired and emulated to some extent, just not copied. You and I should create margin and make healthy living part of our lives too.
I rely on my faith every day. The name Jesus offends some people, and I’m certainly not out to offend anyone. I’m here to tell you the truth though. Jesus is the CEO of our business, and He has been since the beginning. Without faith, I think I’d be lost. There’s a long story here, but for now, just know that my faith is critical to my sanity and any of the success I enjoy (it’s a gift). When the day has gone to crap and I don’t know where to turn, I can turn to Jesus.
Now you know my faith, but there are many faiths in this world. People who have faith in something or someone larger than themselves, have something special. Genuine faith has a tendency to bring strength beyond your own, peace beyond your understanding, and courage to face battles you never thought possible. Faith also brings you into a family of other believers of the same faith, whatever faith it is you believe in. So, an added benefit to faith often includes a new support group.
Don’t neglect your spiritual health. If you have, make margin and find it (maybe again).
There are two parts to physical health, diet and exercise. Diet trumps exercise. If you don’t eat well, exercise won’t really matter as much. Slow down, eat healthy. If you need help eating healthy, get help.
Many, or most of us work in an office environment where we sit at a desk all day. This, without the countering effects of physical exercise, comes with some very negative consequences. According to the Mayo Clinic, the consequences “include obesity and a cluster of conditions — increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels — that make up metabolic syndrome. Too much sitting overall and prolonged periods of sitting also seem to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.”
Sounds pretty serious. There’s good news though. One study of more than one million people found that an hour to an hour and a half of moderately intense physical activity per day can counter the effects of too much sitting. That’s great, but this is another 60+ minutes that we have to find. More balance, and more margin.
If you have the option of working at a standing desk, this will help with the sitting problem . The point is that you and I need exercise to live a healthy life.
Mental health often comes with a stigma, and that’s very sad. This one hit close to home for me last year, when we lost someone dear to us. His suicide cast a dark cloud on all of us, and we still struggle with it sometimes. He was a good guy with so many good traits and gobs of untapped potential. On the outside, nobody could have guessed there was anything wrong. On the inside, he must have been living a hell that few of us will ever know. We will miss him, and we’ll always live with this feeling that we could have helped if only we would have known.
Here’s the deal. Mental health issues can be complex, and there is no stigma. Even if there were a stigma, who gives a crap?
If you struggle with any mental health issue, there’s a whole army of people who will run to your side and fight alongside you, for you.
If you’re not suffering with any mental health issues yourself, recognize that there are people in your circle who are. Invest in your relationships and get to know the people in your circle. When you see an opportunity to help someone, help someone. Give them love.
Don’t neglect mental health issues. They don’t just go away, and you don’t just buck up. Mental health issues can be treated, but only with treatment. If you’re struggling with your own mental health issues, please get help!
Work can be healthy or it can be unhealthy. The decision is up to you.
People falsely believe that they work for someone else, when the truth is that you work for you. You make the decision on what your profession will be, where you will work, and who you will work for. Your employer doesn’t do that. If you feel trapped, get yourself out.
I’ve witnessed two ways that work has negatively affected health in employees. One is stress and the other is a toxic work environment. You can do everything right to live a healthy life, but if your work is killing you, it’s killing you. It doesn’t matter what else you do, if you drink poison, you’re going to die.
The number one unhealthy factor at work for security professionals is stress. Our jobs already come with inherent stress. It’s just the nature of our work. Like I stated earlier, regardless of whether it feels like we live with more stress than other people, this is hard to say. It’s hard to say if our jobs come with any more stress than other peoples’ jobs, say like an accountant or janitor. It depends on the person. I know that I would absolutely stress out if I had to do accounting or clean some of the things janitors do.
I can’t help but wonder how much stress is caused by the person who’s stressed or by a person’s ability to cope with it.
Stressful situations affect different people in different ways. What makes one person stressed out can have little or no effect on others. It doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with one person, it just means that they’re different people. If you’re stressed at work, don’t let it continue. Look for the source and talk to someone about it. If you find the source, and it’s addressable, address it. If you can’t find the source, or can’t find relief, give serious consideration to getting out of the environment you’re in and finding a new job or a new profession.
Maybe the environment you work in doesn’t jibe with you. Maybe the culture is counter to what you believe it, even if it’s not overtly expressed, you can feel it. Maybe you’re not made for the job you do. Maybe this career isn’t the right career for you. Nobody will know the answers like you can. Tap into your support structure for help. Living through a long career, laden with stress, will take it’s toll on you and your family, and I don’t think it’s worth it.
Pro tip: Slow down.
Toxic Work Environment
Studies have shown that working in a toxic environment will negatively affect your mental health. I had a job like this once. Thank God I was able to leave after ten months, even though it felt like an eternity. These were ten of the hardest months of my life, and I wasn’t the only one who noticed. My wife could tell that I was depressed and she knew the source. I’m grateful that I had good support and other options. You can have these things too with a good support, a little creativity and some work.
If you can’t change toxic work environment you’re in, which is unlikely, then leave. Staying, even for a boatload of money, isn’t worth it. Especially when you consider that many of us possess skills that are in high demand elsewhere.
The information security industry is like no other, but it’s a great industry. Sure it’s a broken industry, but it will become more functional over time. Despite our brokenness, this is a wonderful industry filled with AMAZING people. The good people in our industry are my brothers and sisters. We fight every day to make the world a little better that it was the day before. I’m grateful for the men and women in this industry.
If you want to get into this industry, do it. If you’ve got the intangibles, we welcome you with open arms. I hope you found use in this series, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Comment below or use the contact page to get in touch.
My best wishes for you!