The burnout of remote workers poses a surprising cybersecurity risk to their employers. Here's how Microsoft is using mindfulness techniques to keep employees centered.

  • Research shows remote workers are getting burned out by an always-on culture that pings them on nights and weekends. 
  • The exhaustion does more than affect employees' well-being – it also creates dangerous cybersecurity vulnerabilities, research shows. 
  • Microsoft is rolling out mindfulness prompts in its Teams software that urge users to begin and end their days with intention. 
  • Below is the slide deck that explains how Microsoft wants to help remote workers separate their work and home life and "manage their energy."
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Months of working long days when work and home life overlap is burning out remote workers  – and endangering the companies they work for, multiple studies show.

To address this, Microsoft is building optional mindfulness features into its Teams software to help work-from-home employees mark the beginning and end of their day and "stress less, focus more."

In a survey of 6,000 users of Microsoft Teams, the software giant found that 30% feel more burned out due to COVID-19, and a third feel stressed because of a lack of separation between home and work. In one telling stat that may explain some of this burnout, after-hours chat messages to employees are up 69% during the pandemic and weekend chat messages have increased 200%, the company found.

"It feels like work is continuing all the time as I'm more and more getting wrapped up into this 'always on' work culture now than ever before," one Microsoft employee is quoted by the company as saying early on in the pandemic.

And stressed employees mean at-risk workplaces, experts say. 

Experts say burnout has a direct result on cybersecurity. "Understanding how stress impacts behavior is critical to improving cybersecurity," wrote Jeff Hancock, a professor at Stanford University in research on remote work burnout done with the email security company Tessian. "The events of 2020 have meant that people have had to deal with incredibly stressful situations," Hancock wrote in the report. "Hackers prey on this vulnerability."

The cybersecurity company Exabeam found in a survey of 1,000 cybersecurity professionals that "distractions at home lead to mistakes," which is particularly dangerous now, as cyber attacks on US enterprises are up 88% during the pandemic. And Japanese telecom giant NTT found in new research that two-thirds of the 1,350 employees polled said it was harder to identify cybersecurity problems remotely.

Microsoft is betting on mindfulness as a solution

Microsoft believes it has found a winning solution with the built-in mindfulness exercises in its Teams workplace software. Some Microsoft executives are quite enthusiastic about the program.

"Mindfulness and well-being are something we are seeking during these times," said one executive. "Now it's imperative." That wasn't a human resources executive. It was CEO Satya Nadella in a video in early October. "Helping people reduce stress and practice mindfulness in the context of everyday work is something that we are very passionate about," the head of the company said. 

Microsoft's cybersecurity leaders share the enthusiasm for mindfulness. "This tumultuous year has brought challenges across every facet of daily life, including mindfulness," says Vasu Jakkal, a vice president of security, compliance and identity. "When you don't feel safe digitally it can impact your well-being further. Digital safety is directly tied to your mindfulness."

Leading Microsoft's mindfulness program is 15-year company veteran Kamal Janardham, general manager of Microsoft Workplace Intelligence. "With the current pandemic, with the way the world is, the boundaries between work and home have become so blurry that all the traditional ways people created boundaries have actually gone away," she says. "We're introducing the ability to carve out time to have a productive start in the morning, and then to mindfully disconnect in the evening."

The prompts, along with meditation programs from the startup Headspace, are built into the Microsoft Teams software as optional features being rolled out through next year. 

Janardham takes virtual walks with her remote team members for one-on-one talks, recreating what they did in person together before the pandemic. She recommends turning off all notifications for deep concentration on difficult work, stretching before meetings, being aware of video-conferencing fatigue. All of it, she says, contributes to employee well-being – and better job performance. 

"Creating a state of well-being is tightly connected to creating a safe space," she says. "We know that most security challenges come from within, from all of us. Well-being is really about being out best selves, whether we work in cybersecurity, are an engineer writing software, a healthcare worker, an airline pilot."

The mindfulness exercises are not just to monitor time and help employees begin and end work with a healthy ritual, Janardham. "It's not just about managing time, it's also about managing our energy."

Here is the slide deck explaining Microsoft's mindfulness approach to remote work: 

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