In the cybersecurity domain, incident responders act as the secret agents on the front lines of digital conflict. They engage in relentless mitigation efforts against cyber adversaries who exploit vulnerabilities that have the potential to cripple organisational infrastructure. While their dedication is commendable, it’s important to acknowledge the detrimental effects such high-pressure environments can have on their psychological well-being.


I vividly recall attending a FireEye (now Mandiant) panel years ago, focused on incident response and stress management. Having already experienced a handful of minor incidents, the most severe being a High-level event that was resolved within a few days, I found the panel’s content uninformative and dismissed it as mere marketing fluff.

However, as I delved into the depths of more significant incidents, involving the compromise of hundreds of servers and containment efforts spanning weeks – one particular case lasting a staggering eight months – I began to grasp the critical importance of maintaining balance, even amidst the chaos. That once-dismissed panel resurfaced in my memory, forcing me to acknowledge my initial misconception.

So, in this post, I’d like to share the insights and practices I’ve gathered over the years with the hope of empowering fellow incident responders to safeguard their mental well-being.

1. Acknowledge the Impact

The first step towards addressing the mental health challenges faced by incident responders is to acknowledge their existence. The intense pressure, long hours, and constant threat of failure can take a significant toll on mental health, leading to stress, anxiety, and even burnout. Recognizing these challenges is crucial to fostering a supportive environment where responders feel comfortable seeking help and prioritizing their well-being.


During a particularly grueling incident, I noticed one of my team members becoming increasingly withdrawn and irritable. After a private conversation, I discovered that they were struggling with overwhelming stress and anxiety, feeling like they were constantly on the verge of burnout. By acknowledging the impact of the incident on their mental health, we were able to provide them with the support they needed and adjust their workload accordingly.

2. Cultivate Open Communication

Open communication is the cornerstone of a healthy and supportive incident response team. Encourage open dialogue about the mental and emotional impact of incident work. Create a safe space where responders feel comfortable sharing their concerns and experiences without fear of judgment or repercussions. This open communication fosters a sense of camaraderie and understanding, allowing responders to draw strength from shared experiences.


In a large telecommunications company where I worked as a consultant, a weekly “mental health check-in” was organised. During these meetings, team members were able to share their concerns, vent their frustrations and offer each other support. This open communication platform created a safe space to discuss mental health challenges and fostered a sense of camaraderie among team members.

3. Prioritize Breaks and Respite

The relentless nature of incident response can easily lead to individuals working long hours without breaks. However, this is a recipe for burnout and decreased cognitive function. Encourage and enforce regular breaks during extended incidents. Allow responders to step away from their desks, engage in activities that promote relaxation and stress reduction, and simply recharge their mental batteries.


During a particularly long incident, we implemented a mandatory break policy. Every two hours, team members were required to step away from their desks for a 15-minute break. During these breaks, they were encouraged to engage in activities such as going for a walk, stretching, or listening to music. This break policy helped to reduce stress, improve focus, and prevent burnout among team members.

4. Delegate and Share Responsibilities

While some individuals may thrive in high-pressure environments, others may find them overwhelming. To prevent burnout and ensure the well-being of the entire team, distribute responsibilities effectively. Delegate tasks based on individual strengths and expertise, avoiding overburdening any single responder. This balanced approach ensures that everyone contributes while preventing individuals from becoming overwhelmed.


In one incident, we had a team member who was particularly skilled in malware analysis. However, they were also prone to anxiety and stress in high-pressure situations. To manage their workload and prevent burnout, we delegated tasks related to network traffic analysis and log review to other team members, while allowing them to focus on their area of expertise. This delegation of responsibilities ensured that the team member could contribute effectively without becoming overwhelmed.

5. Encourage Peer Support

The camaraderie and mutual support among team members are invaluable assets in incident response. Encourage peer-to-peer support by fostering a collaborative environment where responders can share knowledge, offer assistance, and provide emotional support to one another. This peer support network can serve as a lifeline during challenging times, helping individuals manage stress and maintain resilience.


We implemented a peer mentoring program within our team, pairing experienced responders with newer team.

6. Establish Clear Roles and Responsibilities

Ambiguity and uncertainty can exacerbate stress during an incident. Define clear roles and responsibilities for each team member upfront. This ensures everyone understands their tasks, expectations, and decision-making authority. Clear roles minimize confusion and wasted effort, allowing responders to focus their energy on effective problem-solving.


Before the start of a major incident, we conduct a team briefing where roles and responsibilities are clearly outlined. We assign a dedicated incident commander, who oversees the overall response strategy. We also assign specific tasks to each team member, ensuring everyone understands their area of focus and who to contact for assistance. This clarity of roles minimizes confusion and allows the team to work efficiently.

7. Prioritize Effective Communication with Leadership

Keeping leadership informed of the incident’s progress, challenges, and potential consequences is crucial. However, this communication should be concise and focused on actionable insights. Avoid information overload that can overwhelm leadership and impede decision-making. Effective communication fosters trust and collaboration between the incident response team and leadership.


During an incident, it is very useful to establish a regular communication plan with leadership. Daily status reports were produced highlighting key findings, challenges and proposed solutions. These reports were concise and action-oriented, providing management with the information they needed to make informed decisions without overwhelming them with excessive detail.

8. Leverage Automation Whenever Possible

Incident response can involve repetitive and time-consuming tasks such as log review or malware analysis. When possible, leverage automation tools to streamline these processes. Automation frees up valuable time for responders to focus on more complex tasks that require human expertise and judgment.


During a very large incident that required multiple network forensics activities, we implemented automated log analysis tools to identify suspicious activity across the corporate network. This automation significantly reduced the time spent manually reviewing logs, allowing our team members to focus their time on investigating and responding to identified threats.

9. Celebrate Wins and Milestones

The long and arduous nature of incident response can lead to a sense of discouragement. Celebrate major milestones and successful outcomes, no matter how small. Recognizing progress and achievement helps to maintain team morale and motivation during challenging times.


Throughout an incident, we made a point of celebrating successes, big and small. We acknowledged the team’s efforts in containing the threat, mitigating damage, and restoring affected systems. These celebrations, even for seemingly minor victories, helped to boost team morale and maintain the focus on achieving the overall objective.

10. Foster a Culture of Learning and Growth

Every incident response experience offers valuable lessons. Conduct post-incident reviews to identify areas for improvement, analyze successes and failures, and document best practices. This knowledge sharing fosters a culture of continuous learning and growth, ensuring the team is better prepared to tackle future incidents.


After every incident, it is important to conduct a detailed post-incident review. During this review, we discuss response strategies, lessons learned and areas for improvement. This analysis is documented and shared with the team, ensuring that valuable knowledge is captured to inform future responses.

11. Seek Professional Help When Needed

Mental health is just as important as physical health. Don’t hesitate to seek professional help if you or a team member is struggling with stress, anxiety, or burnout. Therapists specializing in first responder mental health can provide valuable tools and strategies for coping with the unique challenges of incident response work.


In the same telecommunications company that organises the weekly mental health check, a list of mental health resources was made available to all team members. This list included hotlines, counselling services and websites offering information and support on stress management and mental wellbeing. We also encouraged open communication to ensure that team members felt comfortable discussing mental health concerns and seeking professional help if needed.

12. Prioritize Self-Care

Self-care is not a luxury during an incident; it’s a necessity. Even during intense periods, carve out time for activities that promote relaxation and stress reduction. This could entail exercise, meditation, spending time in nature, or simply disconnecting from work to recharge. Prioritizing self-care helps to maintain mental and physical well-being, ensuring responders can sustain their efforts for the long haul.


During all major incidents, I always encouraged team members to prioritise self-care activities throughout the incident. I worked to provide flexible working hours to allow for healthy sleep patterns and exercise routines. I also discouraged working through breaks and encouraged team members to engage in activities that helped them de-stress and recharge.

Beyond the Core Practices

The twelve practices outlined above provide a strong foundation for promoting mental well-being within your incident response team. However, additional considerations can further enhance your team’s resilience:

  • Building a Support Network: Consider establishing relationships with external support networks specializing in first responder mental health. These organizations can provide valuable resources and expertise to supplement your internal efforts.
  • Mindfulness and Meditation Techniques: Encourage team members to explore mindfulness and meditation techniques for stress management and emotional regulation. These practices can significantly enhance their ability to cope with the pressures of incident response.
  • Humor and Positive Reinforcement: Maintaining a sense of humor can be a powerful tool for de-stressing and fostering team morale. While inappropriate humor during a serious incident is to be avoided, finding opportunities for lighthearted moments can help to counteract negativity. Additionally, acknowledge and praise individual and team achievements to bolster motivation.
  • Healthy Work-Life Balance: Enforce boundaries between work and personal life. Encourage team members to disconnect from work emails and notifications outside of working hours. This allows them to properly detach and recharge, returning to work feeling refreshed and focused.
  • Leading by Example: As a leader, your approach sets the tone for your team. Prioritize your own well-being and demonstrate healthy coping mechanisms. Openly discuss the challenges of incident response and normalize seeking help when needed. This creates a safe space for your team members to do the same.

The Importance of a Supportive Culture

Ultimately, creating a culture of mental well-being within your incident response team is an ongoing endeavor. By implementing the practices outlined above and fostering a supportive environment, you can equip your team with the tools and resources necessary to navigate the demanding world of incident response. Remember, a mentally healthy and resilient team is better equipped to handle complex threats, make sound decisions under pressure, and ultimately achieve successful resolutions.