Remote working and workplace stress a recipe for risky business

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Remote working and workplace stress a recipe for risky business
Start by making sure your employees feel supported and comfortable.
Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

We all know just how seismic the societal and professional shift caused by the pandemic has been.

For business, one of the most far-reaching impacts was that it forced organisations to relook at operations and move to sustained mass remote working. While the discussions around the implications of long term remote working policies tend to focus on productivity, process, tooling and of course security, businesses need to be aware of the toll it has taken on employees and address any shifts in behaviours and attitudes.

New research from Forcepoint examining the impact of remote working reveals three in five (59%) Australian employees feel at risk of burnout and over half (56%) are worried about losing their job. Younger people (under the age of 35) and caregivers reported greater negative impacts when working from home than others.

Besides the clear downsides to employee wellbeing and morale, the cumulative effect of remote working and work-related stress on today’s workforce is a business and security risk most organisations can no longer ignore.

Data from the research revealed some tell-tale signs in the correlation of remote working, workplace stress and cyber threats.

An inconvenient truth: When faster and easier isn’t necessarily safer

To understand the impact of this stress, the research questioned employees on their day-to-day behaviours while working from home. A third (33%) of younger people reported making more mistakes when working from home, while half (50%) of younger workers stated that distractions whilst working from home negatively impact their decision making.

Notably, more than half (55%) of Australian workers believe increased stress levels are impacting their overall ability to focus, potentially resulting in the undertaking of risky behaviours that may expose themselves and their organisations to cyber threats.

These risky behaviours are often related to technology use, with 41% of younger workers admitting to using ‘shadow IT’ – or non-company approved IT systems, devices, software, applications, and services for the sake of convenience, enabling them to perform certain tasks more easily. With more choice, often better devices, and less control over the applications used at home, it is natural for employees to pick the tools that make their lives and work easier. Interestingly, more than one in five (22%) younger workers said they allowed members of their household to use their corporate devices, compared to just 7% of older workers, even though they are both exposed to the same training and awareness programs, highlighting how hard it is for organisations to get security messages across all cohorts.

While shadow IT can drive employee productivity and innovation and often used in virtuous intent as it’s seen as better or more convenient rather than for malicious intent , it can also introduce serious security risks to a business through data leaks, potential compliance violations, and more. Businesses need to understand that while employees are simply trying to get the job done in a quick, easy, and efficient manner, the rise of ‘shadow IT’ could expose them to greatly increased cybersecurity risk.

So, is shadow IT friend or foe?

According to the findings Australian workers, and younger workers especially, are less connected to their employers and increasingly unsure about their job security. Under these circumstances, business leaders need to ask themselves if these worrying factors are making employees more likely to take risks. And if so, how can businesses mitigate that behaviour?

The first port of call for most businesses might be to increase security, however traditional cybersecurity solutions alone are not enough to meet the demands of today’s hyper-distributed, multi-generational IT landscape.

Attempting to protect every single piece of data or secure systems in the same way that we were when most employees were in an office, will likely make things worse, as staff will struggle to do a good job and be less efficient in their day-to-day operations due to increased friction and frustration, leading them even further down the shadow IT path with increasingly risky behaviours. As organisations continue to activate more data, how do we safeguard data and IP without slowing down business processes?

At a time when businesses need to operate at an open, accessible, and digital speed – it is vital to ensure staff have the right tools and support they need to operate effectively. Strict rules, one-size-fits-all policies and traditional DLP (data loss prevention) need to evolve to be more supportive than restrictive in nature. Organisations instead should look for products offering individualised, adaptive data security which blocks actions only when needed, coaches users where appropriate and allows for quick adoption of new technologies that users want. This ensures people can get their jobs done without intrusive technologies frustrating them or even worse stopping them from working effectively.

In addition, business leaders need to consider the individual psychological and physical situation of their remote workers when it comes to effective IT protection. Among other policies and processes, leaders can prioritise and facilitate a healthy work-life balance, considering, for example, regular virtual-meeting free days, as well as ensuring employees are comfortable in their home offices. Business leaders must understand that humans have a finite amount of memory and attention and can make mistakes when under pressure: by paying attention to corporate culture, employers can identify policies, training or social rules they could change which could contribute to a happier, healthier workforce.

While some businesses know a little about the risk of shadow IT and how best to manage it, others demonise it and resort to extreme measures. The best course of action is a careful and considered approach. It is better to support the user to operate in the supervised corporate technology environment, even if it means changing the approach, than to frustrate them so much they bypass it entirely.

Start by making sure your employees feel supported and comfortable in their remote working environment. Equip them with the vital knowledge and awareness of IT security, and shadow IT’s detrimental impacts to the business. More importantly, model positive behaviours – create the rule book, both written and implied, and then design behaviour-centric metrics surrounding the rules so the business is able to mitigate the negative impact of risky behaviours while employees navigate a new way of working.

Understanding the cause and effect of employee stress and shadow IT risks will enable business to better manage the wellbeing of their people, while also shoring up the cyber security of their organisation.

 Nick Savvides is Senior Director of Strategic Business for APAC at Forcepoint.

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