Tech Addiction and Work Burnout Make us Prone to Phishing Attacks

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For many people, the last thing they look at in the evening and the first thing they look at in the morning is their smartphone; during the day, it’s usually within arm’s reach. It’s a compulsion widely recognized as technology addiction.

Even the world-renowned Mayo Clinic addresses this issue on its website, classifying internet and video game addictions as behavioral addictions – just as complex and challenging to treat as substance abuse. 

There’s a reason these addictions – including tech addictions – are so compelling, and it’s not about self-control. As Mayo claims in an oft-cited quote: “The reward center in the brain releases dopamine in response to a pleasurable experience or hyperarousal. The more times people experience the behavior, the more dopamine is released and the more driven they are to return to the behavior.”

The proliferation of digital devices – at home and work – means that the dopamine associated with tech addiction is difficult to avoid.

No Escaping the Digital World

In the 21st century, the digital world is all around us and is problematic, if not downright impossible, to escape. 

Once upon a time, there was a sense of a ‘shift change’ at the end of a workday. You put on your coat and walked away from the desktop. If you were particularly stalwart, you wouldn’t think about work until the following morning and would certainly ignore it entirely over the weekend. 

Now, internet-connected devices are ubiquitous in our lives, and tech addiction has grown in severity since the pandemic and the growth in remote working. Nielsen data estimates that people are using technology about three hours more today than before the pandemic. Just how often is that? About 13.5 hours per day. 

So why should professionals responsible for data security be concerned about tech addiction? Because the ‘always on’ culture of today’s digital nomads can lead to severe stress and burnout, which invariably makes employees much more susceptible to phishing, ransomware and social engineering scams.

The Data Security Connection 

Work burnout is on the rise. According to the American Psychological Association, rates of burnout heightened in 2020 and 2021. Its 2021 Work and Well-being survey, based on input from 1500 US workers, indicates that 79% had experienced work-related stress in the month before they took the survey.

What are the effects of that stress? The APA reports that “nearly three in five employees reported negative impacts of work-related stress, including lack of interest, motivation, or energy and lack of effort at work.” That lack of interest and lethargy leads to inattention, carelessness, mistakes and falling prey too easily to the crafty lure of increasingly sophisticated cyber-attackers.

Phishing and other attack vectors are also on the rise. Hackers know that employees are particularly vulnerable in remote and home settings. For example, F5 found that phishing attacks exploded by 220% during the pandemic compared to the previous year. 

Hackers and bad actors know a lot about human fallibility and social behaviors. They know that humans have weaknesses and character traits that can be exploited by phishing scams, such as gullibility, curiosity, and impulsivity. Add things like tech addition, work burnout and job grievances to this list. Cyber-attackers’ social engineering efforts use clever deceptions designed to exploit employees’ vulnerabilities to gain access to sensitive or proprietary data.

With tech addiction comes burnout and, with that, behavior that is prone to social engineering scams. So, what can organizations do about it? 

Helping Employees Combat Tech Addiction

As with any addiction, the first step to recovery is acknowledging a problem. Educate employees about the prevalence and signs of technology addiction. Ask them to examine their own behaviors to determine if they are falling prey to the power of dopamine related to their digital interactions.

Offer tips and advice on how to combat tech addiction at work and home. Suggest ‘digital free zones’ where they put aside their devices to focus on the real world. Consider making ‘digital free time’ a regular part of the workday. Encourage employees to limit work-related emailing after hours or on weekends. Teach them to ask the question, ‘Do you really need to send that email right now?’ and ‘What life experiences might you be missing out on if you stay locked into your digital habits?’

Keep conversations ongoing and do regular check-ins. Encourage leaders and managers to be open about their own challenges of letting go of technology to normalize the issue and minimize stress factors and possibly the shame employees may be feeling.

Conduct regular phishing simulation exercises using real-world phishing examples to keep the issue top of mind and provide hands-on experiences to help them better understand how these attacks work. 

People are a critical defense layer against cyber-criminals – and also the most common attack path. Confronting the issues related to tech addiction will help your organization combat the potential of cyber-attacks. 

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