Amid a spike in domino-like internet outages and pervasive data breaches, one effect is going largely unnoticed in the tech industry: the mental toll incidents can take on executives.
Cyberattacks, tech outages and breaches cause stress-related illnesses and impact the mental well-being of 51% of tech executives, according to a recent survey of 800 C-suite executives from IT recovery firm Sungard AS. That number reaches 56% among CTO and CIO roles.
"This is literally what keeps me up at night," said Justin Mathews, COO at digital product agency O3 World, in an interview with CIO Dive.
As a COO with an IT background, Mathews must make sure the agency's systems run smoothly. But the recent uptick of internet service outages have made that task more difficult, especially when clients expect 99.99% uptime on their websites.
Beyond the privacy concerns of users, the consequences of cyberattacks and massive tech outages — particularly as they relate to profitability and efficiency — are a key concern for managers in the digital age.
Every minute that a client's site might be down, the firm and the client stand to lose money.
"That's a huge stress because a lot of times I can't control that," Mathews said.
Backlash after attacks or outages contribute to stress among decision makers. Following an incident, 45% of executives say they've experienced online or verbal abuse in connection with outages or cyberattacks.
Two key stressors in the aftermath of incidents are the financial and managerial impact they can have on a company.
Almost one quarter of U.S. companies estimate the cost of outages will exceed $3.8 million in 2019. The estimate is conservative at best when compared to large retailers like Target or Macy's, which stand to lose over $500,000 for every hour of downtime.
A CEO departure has followed outages at 23% of surveyed companies. C-suite overhauls habitually take place after major breaches, as it was the case with Equifax, Uber, and Yahoo.
Stress-riddled managers are indicative of the corporate world coming to terms with the effects of stress over all employees, according to Mollie Lombardi, a human capital management analyst.
"For executives, it's playing out in a very visible way, because they're responsible for their clients' customers," said Lombardi, in an interview with CIO Dive. "If there's a breach or outage, that has a lot of impact on team morale, but they also must deal with their own responsibility and their own health. They're getting hit from all sides."
How to lower the impact
A key to reducing the potential for harm is for teams to identify where each employee's stress "red lines" are, and adjusting workloads accordingly, a balancing act that's falling more and more on CIOs' plates.
"We're seeing CIOs having to become talent leaders because they need to build teams and develop resilience," Lombardi said.
In Mathews' case, proactiveness was key to develop that resilience. About six months into the job, Mathews proposed a retool of an IT platform that was underperforming at O3 World's headquarters.
"Before getting backlash you have to provide action," Mathews said. "You have to do the research and figure out what's right for the company."
To keep a level head, Mathews also relies on a ticketing system, and blocking off time to ensure IT requirements get done on time.
"Often [stress management] gets pushed to the corner," said Lombardi. "But it's having a huge impact on productivity, and it's something we need to talk about at work."
Clarification: This story has been updated to add context on who stands to lose when a client's site goes down.