How to Spot the Effects of Alert Fatigue
Imagine being part of an overactive group chat that causes your phone to buzz every few minutes. In the beginning, you open every message but soon realize that most of them aren’t important—or at least are not relevant to you. So, what do you do next?
Maybe you let the messages pile up and check them later. Or perhaps, you mute the group chat and ignore the incoming messages altogether. You can blame this tendency to ignore or avoid incoming messages or notifications on one culprit: alert fatigue.
Alert fatigue is a phenomenon where an overwhelming number of alerts causes someone to become desensitized to them. It can impact anyone, regardless of their workload or employment status. Alert fatigue is a significant issue in the IT sphere, heavily affecting those working in cybersecurity, incident response, and site reliability engineering (SRE)—fields that receive many notifications.
As a result of the exhaustion it can create, alert fatigue can affect employee morale, reduce issue resolution speed, and impact the software delivery chain in multiple ways. Therefore, it’s crucial to spot alert fatigue for employee wellbeing and mitigate its impact on business operations. In this post, we explore some potential indicators of alert fatigue and then examine some best practices to reduce it.
Signs of Alert Fatigue
While an alert is one of the best ways to be notified of an emergency, a drastic increase in the number and frequency of alerts almost inevitably leads to alert fatigue. Here are a few indicators that may signal that you—or your colleagues—are experiencing it.
Slow Response to Notifications
If you’re used to seeing many alerts turn out to be false positives, you become far less inclined to take immediate action. High volumes of low-fidelity alerts often occur due to oversensitive filtering rules and rarely do they indicate an emergency. So, you continue your current task and follow up on the alert when it feels more convenient.
Unfortunately, this behavior can’t always discriminate between unnecessary alerts and those that require immediate attention. The result is an overall reduced sense of urgency when handling alerts, which means slower responses to those that need action.
Ignoring or Missing Important Alerts
There are many reasons someone might ignore or miss a critical alert. In addition to excessive false positives that can obscure or distract from important notifications, the absence of clear and actionable information may cause an already fatigued employee to ignore the alert. The employee is already inundated with information and can feel too overwhelmed to discern the steps needed to address a vague or poorly structured alert message. Moreover, alert fatigue can manifest as mental and physical exhaustion, increasing the likelihood of human error responsible for missing the alert altogether.
Frustration About Receiving a New Alert
Whether because of sheer volume, low-quality information, or the plethora of other tasks to complete while remaining on-call, an alert’s sound (or vibration) can immediately cause acute frustration in the alert-fatigued worker.
An alert is a warning signal of a problem. Ideally, it should spring you into a state of readiness to solve it. But if you feel intense anger or agitation, you’re probably experiencing alert fatigue. This can make it nearly impossible to care about your application and put forth the effort necessary to resolve issues.
Lack of Breaks Between Alerts
Dealing with alerts can be stressful, requiring close attention and focus. You’re always on your toes and constantly checking logs to see if you’ve missed something important. Performing these functions without breaks is detrimental to your health and monitoring application. Over time, you’ll feel tired and unable to give the attention the alerts need.
Reduced Sense of Accomplishment when Handling Alerts
To succeed at work, you need to feel a sense of accomplishment. If you constantly receive alerts, you may feel stressed and lose interest in responding to them. Therefore it’s crucial to set achievable targets, provide adequate support, and find opportunities to celebrate and acknowledge your hard work.
Inability to Prioritize Alerts
Your top priority should be to cater to any incident affecting customers and impacting business revenue. However, organizations that use outdated monitoring tools may confuse you about the issue’s severity. You then need to determine the severity of an alert before being able to address it. Such outdated monitoring systems can make your job more stressful and cause important alerts to go unnoticed.
Working with this technology is daunting, even for the prepared employee. However, alert fatigue can significantly reduce the ability to filter out the white noise of low-impact alerts so that you can determine their relative importance.
It’s not humanly possible to be in a constant state of hyperfocus to deal with alerts. So, when you receive a high number of alerts, you burn out sooner, making you unable to do your job well. You may feel overwhelmed with the workload, lose your morale to work, and you could ultimately leave the organization. Unproductivity and high churn rates could indicate alert fatigue.
How to Reduce Alert Fatigue
Now that you know how to spot alert fatigue, let’s look at some of the best practices to reduce it.
Consolidate Redundant Alerts
In a typical IT environment, Ops team members often receive repeated emails about the same alert. In many cases, emails are also sent to a generic mailing list, leading to many individuals receiving many non-relevant alerts. Both these factors make identifying important alerts difficult and contribute to alert fatigue. Therefore, alerts must be consolidated and sent to the right people. The alerting system should be able to cut through the noise using innovative monitoring tools that enable filtering, suppression, role-based routing, and enriched notifications.
Create Alert Tiers Based on Severity
Not every alert requires the same level of attention and treatment. So, the notification method of every alert should reflect its severity. You can do this by correctly configuring the sensory signals attached to each alert based on its importance.
For instance, an alert indicating a priority-1 (P1) incident should have stronger visual and auditory cues than that for a P3 incident. You can quickly identify and prioritize serious issues by creating alert tiers, even if you’re dealing with many alerts.
Adhere to On-Call Schedules
It’s counterproductive for on-call professionals to stay up late and work overtime, even when using modern and innovative alerting systems. So, every organization must also focus on its people to combat alert fatigue. There must be sufficient on-call professionals to distribute the workload evenly across the team.
Additionally, supervisors should be aware of peak activity times and create balanced schedules accordingly. It’s equally important to ensure employees strictly adhere to these schedules so that everyone receives sufficient time away and can perform at their highest level.
Keep it Actionable
Alerts that are too vague or lack context will be lost among the sea of incoming notifications, creating unnecessary noise and accelerating the effects of fatigue. The limited information leaves on-call professionals confused and can make a single point of failure in the IT delivery chain.
On the other hand, actionable and insightful alerts help on-call professionals quickly identify and resolve issues. It reduces the mean time to detect (MTTD), which benefits the mean time to resolve (MTTR). Actionable alerts also enable organizations to standardize their customer service and improve the overall customer experience.
Whether you’re a DevOps engineer or an SRE, being on-call to ensure an application runs smoothly is a huge responsibility. Effective alerts are crucial to minimizing human errors and maximizing operational efficiency in such a job role. However, you can also feel overwhelmed by the number of alerts you receive. If you dread the next alert you receive or deliberately miss or ignore alerts, there’s a good chance you’re experiencing alert fatigue.
To tackle alert fatigue, organizations need to focus on their people and review the alerting systems in place. xMatters is a service reliability platform that helps automate incident responses to resolve issues quickly. With xMatters, teams can proactively build workflows to address problems, manage on-call seamlessly, get actionable analytics, and cut through the noise with smart monitoring tools. Explore xMatters today to see how it can help with incident management and deliver rich customer experiences.