Jun 23 2023

What Higher Ed IT Leaders Need to Know About Their Staff’s Mental Health

Increased workloads and employee shortages are stressing college and university IT teams. Here’s how to make worker well-being a priority.

The results of a 2022 IBM study on the mental health of incident response teams should have sent an unambiguous message to cybersecurity leaders around the country: Your employees are struggling.

Among U.S. cybersecurity incident responders, 77 percent say the rise of ransomware attacks has “exacerbated the stress/psychological demands” during cybersecurity incidents, something that should perhaps be unsurprising considering that 32 percent of respondents said they were working more than 12 hours a day during such incidents, and 71 percent reported it is somewhat or very common for them to be working more than one incident at a time.

In higher education, cybersecurity professionals know those challenges well. Ransomware attackers continue to target colleges and universities at a high rate, and understaffing remains a major challenge in cybersecurity more broadly, with CyberSeek reporting more than 663,000 open jobs in the sector in the U.S. alone.

READ MORE: How higher ed IT can stay fully staffed during the “great resignation.”

Colleges and universities are not unfamiliar with mental health challenges. The mental well-being of college students is a full-blown crisis, with students reporting unprecedented rates of depression (44 percent) and anxiety (37 percent), according to one 2023 study.

So, what can higher education institutions do to take better care of their students and staff? More resources are now available, including a number of digital tools, but just providing access is not enough, especially when it comes to IT and other staff.

Increased awareness of mental health issues and concerted efforts on the part of supervisors to support their staff are vital. This is especially true the staff member places a stigma on mental illness and is reluctant to seek help. That differs from today’s college student, who is much more willing to acknowledge mental health struggles, says Ron Goetzel, a senior scientist and the director of the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

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“They’re much more comfortable talking about feelings, talking about their anxieties, talking about how day-to-day life is affecting them personally,” he says. “If you go back two decades, having a mental health problem disqualified you from almost any job.”

Thankfully, Goetzel adds, the stigma facing those with mental illness is showing signs of lifting, even among older generations.

“There has been greater openness about this,” he says. “In many organizations, you find senior executives talking about their mental health and even addiction, talking about that openly and saying, ‘I went through this, and this is how I got through it.’”

How Can Higher Ed Support Staff Through Mental Health Challenges?

On Tuesday, June 27, Goetzel, fellow staff members of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a variety of other speakers — including representatives from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — will convene the Summit on Workplace Mental Health and Wellbeing. There they will discuss, among other things, how supervisors, staff and students can get the mental health support they need.

However, before directing employees to support services, Goetzel says, it’s important for today’s leaders to understand what drives their employees, particularly in a setting like higher education where salaries are typically lower than in the corporate sector.

“What keeps people on the job, more so than higher pay, is a sense of belonging, a sense of appreciation and an acknowledgement from management that you do have a life, and there ought to be a boundary between work and life,” says Goetzel. “What is my role as an employer to help you do those things?”

One place employers can look to understand their role is the P.O.E. Total Worker Health Center at Johns Hopkins. POE stands for the three key areas that impact worker mental health: psychosocial factors, organizational conditions and environmental exposures. The name is also an homage to writer and poet Edgar Allen Poe, a Baltimore native.

71 percent

The number of cybersecurity workers who reported it is "somewhat or very common" for them to be working more than one incident at a time

Source: 2022 IBM Security Incident Responder Study; https://www.ibm.com/downloads/cas/XKOY5OLO

Making positive changes to the way employees are treated, improving the environment where they work and altering the organizational systems they operate within is a solid model, Goetzel says. Yet, even when extra hours of work are needed during a stressful, time-sensitive situation — say, during a cybersecurity incident — there are still ways employers can be mindful of team members’ well-being.

“If there’s an acknowledgement that you may have to work late, even work weekends, but we have got to get this done, then there needs to be an expectation that once that milestone is achieved, we’re going to give you a day off to allow you to refresh, relax and recharge,” Goetzel says. “That’s so that the next time this happens, you’re alert, you’re able to do it, and your mind is focused.”

“There are always these moments of tension and stress,” he continues, “but they can’t be the norm because staff cannot operate at this level for a very long time and not burn out and crash.”

Goetzel says employers should also look for signs of mental health challenges in their employees. The first step is taking the time to develop a strong relationship and sense of trust between bosses and their staff. Workplace culture matters too, he says, so that employees view their supervisors as people who are trying to help them, not just someone trying to maximize their work performance.

LEARN MORE: How workforce training can maximize ROI on cybersecurity tools.

“You don’t want a situation where you feel that somebody’s against you,” says Goetzel. “It’s not going to do you any good if your employee is underperforming. You need to have them sharp, focused, creative and interested in doing their jobs.”

Signs of someone struggling with their mental health at work can include an employee who is withdrawn and not interacting, who is falling asleep at work or arriving late, or who is “glum 100 percent of the time,” says Goetzel. There are also resources like Mental Health First Aid, a training course that can help employers understand and recognize someone who may be in crisis.

If employees do start showing signs of burnout or other mental health challenges, colleges and universities should have plenty of options available for staff members in need. Employee Assistance Programs are offered on many campuses and the advent of virtual care makes access to resources such as therapy more accessible.

Chainarong Prasertthai/Getty Images

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