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Despite our best efforts, humans make mistakes. It’s in our nature.
But human error in the workplace can have serious consequences on business continuity and cybersecurity.
Human error can cause significant damage to a company’s reputation, bottom line, and future. This is why we often hear that humans are the “weakest link” in security.
Below, we dig into the external factors that lead to human error and offer solutions to help you develop a human error prevention strategy.
Human error is an unintentional action that goes against a business’s established practices, guidelines, or code of conduct.
While human error is not 100% preventable, understanding why human error happens and taking steps to prevent it can help you avoid costly mistakes and improve processes.
Employees are often the most vulnerable target for cybercriminals, making human error prevention a key component of your risk management plan.
A 2020 IBM report found that data breaches caused by human error cost businesses an average of $3.33 million. Additionally, 43% of employees admit they have made a mistake at work that had security repercussions for themselves or their company.
Because a third of workers report they rarely or never think about cybersecurity at work, it’s crucial to educate employees on the importance of cybersecurity and how it connects to their work.
Security awareness training and periodic phishing tests can help raise employee awareness and empower them with the knowledge to detect and report suspicious activity.
There are two categories of human error: thinking errors and action errors. It’s important to note that both of these error types are unintentional.
Action errors occur when a person carries out an action incorrectly, such as when the task is highly repetitive. Thinking errors occur when a person correctly carries out the wrong task because of a knowledge gap or unclear instructions.
Error type: Thinking error
Knowledge-based mistakes occur when a person doesn’t fully understand a task and uses limited knowledge to carry out a task incorrectly.
An example of a knowledge-based mistake would be filling a rental car with regular gas rather than premium because the rental company didn’t tell you it requires premium gas.
Error type: Thinking error
This kind of mistake hinges on how a rule is applied. A mistake can be made if a good rule (one that has been successfully used in the past) is applied to the wrong situation, or if the wrong rule has been applied.
An example of a rule-based mistake would be driving in the left lane on the highway without the intention to pass someone.
Error type: Action error
Slips of action happen when your action is different from what you intended. These often happen because a person isn’t paying sufficient attention to the task at hand.
A slip of action could be something as simple as taking the wrong exit on your daily commute home because you were distracted and not fully concentrated on the road.
Error type: Action error
A memory lapse occurs when you forget to do something. This is also known as a lapse in short-term memory.
An example of a memory lapse would be forgetting to put on your seatbelt when you get into a car.
While human error isn’t completely preventable, understanding common causes can help you develop more mindful strategies for addressing error head-on.
It’s no surprise that stress is a leading cause of mistakes. Stress inhibits our ability to
think clearly and also produces physical symptoms such as high blood
pressure, headaches, and muscle tension.
According to Tessian research, 52% of survey respondents said they make more mistakes at work when they are stressed. The U.K.’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) identifies that the most common factors that lead to workplace stress are workload (44%), lack of support (14%), and changes at work (8%).
You can help employees manage stress in a number of ways. Here are a few ideas:
Sleep deprivation is another leading cause of human error. This could be caused by overworking or revenge bedtime procrastination, which is the decision to sacrifice sleep for the activities you weren’t able to do during the day.
Fatigue can result in slower reactions, reduced ability to process information, memory lapses, decreased awareness, and reduced coordination.
How to help: Encourage employees to use their paid time off and take breaks throughout the day.
Mistakes often happen when a person is trying to do too many tasks at once. When you switch from task to task without finishing the first, you can lose up to 40% of your productivity.
Toggling back and forth between tasks can take a toll on both emotional wellbeing and mental health.
How to help: Encourage employees to determine their most productive hours of the day and focus on high-priority or harder tasks during that time frame.
Employees suffering from burnout tend to have less mental and physical energy available, making them more prone to cognitive errors, accidents, and injuries.
Burnout can have serious medical consequences such as heart disease and high blood pressure, not to mention the toll it takes on the quality of work and the ability to efficiently complete tasks.
How to help: Ensure your teams are properly staffed and workloads are well balanced.
Not providing employees with proper training is also a cause for human error.
Often, employees who were not trained properly will attempt to finish tasks or follow procedures to the best of their knowledge, but this can leave out important steps and cause long-term problems if not caught early on.
How to help: Commit to ongoing employee training — not just for new hires — on areas that are historically prone to human error within your organization.
Negligence, or a disregard for an established process or rule, is another cause for error. However, this error type is deliberate and intentional, unlike thinking and action errors described above.
How to help: Ensure employees understand why rules and processes are in place and impose consequences for errors caused by negligence.
Errors are an opportunity for us to learn and hopefully avoid mistakes from happening again. We talked with experts to gain their insight into the human error prevention steps that have worked for them.
Before you begin a human error prevention strategy, it’s important to identify the areas of your business that are prone to errors. You can do this through a root cause analysis that provides insight into the underlying causes and helps to fix the issue.
“Processes can be set up to prevent or limit future occurrences of identified problems,” says Noriana Radwan, Expert Associate in Human Factors at LISKE Accident & Injury Experts. “For example, in recurring manual tasks such as data entry, automated systems can help to prevent and limit mistakes. For recurring multi-step tasks, checklists can be helpful as they provide step-by-step instructions on how to complete a multi-step task by focusing on one step at a time.”
Many human errors can be avoided by automating repetitive tasks. Automation reduces the number of manual tasks your employees have to complete, which reduces the risk of human errors.
“When you automate repetitive tasks like payroll or auto-populating forms, you only have to check the information once when you enter it for the first time,” says Logan Mallory, Vice President of Motivosity. “This greatly reduces human errors like typos, transposing numbers, or entering data into the wrong field. Automation also saves time and frees people up to focus on other tasks.”
To keep up with changing processes and technologies, employees should be given consistent and flexible training.
These training sessions should serve as a reminder about important processes, provide details on any new processes, and introduce the team to the company’s biggest risks and how the entire company can work to mitigate them.
Additionally, public awareness campaigns can also keep important information top of mind.
“Even after training sessions, cybersecurity information can easily be forgotten if employees are not reminded of the hazards they face on a daily basis,” says Jamie Opalchuk, founder and CEO of HostPapa. “Raising awareness is most easily accomplished through poster campaigns and email reminders that may include general information, tips and techniques, or more specific guidance about your business's operations.”
Checklists and process docs should be available to all employees and serve as a way to double-check they’re following proper procedure.
It’s helpful to create these for more complex processes within your company. However, if your business has the resources, it can be helpful to document all workplace procedures and store them in an easily accessible place such as the cloud.
Human error leads to 50% of data loss incidents, according to research from Netwrix.
Data loss can have a catastrophic impact on business operations, so it’s important to invest in regular data backups. A secure, automated, offsite backup can help with disaster recovery and business continuity should a data loss incident occur.
70 Compliance Statistics to Know in 2022Read article
Communication is key in preventing human error incidents.
Because many types of human error are caused by a misunderstanding of rules or processes, encouraging open lines of communication between employees and their managers can help avoid certain mistakes and improve understanding of the task at hand.
When trust is established between an employee and their manager, they will feel more comfortable asking clarifying questions. This can be particularly helpful when an employee is doing a new task for the first time or a process has been updated.
The Principle of Least Privilege is a cybersecurity concept that limits user access only to individuals that need that information to complete their job. This is a helpful way to prevent data breaches because it limits the number of people who have access to sensitive information.
“It’s important to allow access to sensitive data only when absolutely necessary, “ says Chris Sesi, Head of Compliance at Secureframe. “Granting user access to a select few key individuals can prevent data breaches and accidental data deletion.”
The most effective way to rectify mistakes is to learn from them as soon as possible. When employees are afraid to speak up about errors they’ve made, it can lead to continually covering up mistakes rather than learning from them.
Rather than discouraging or punishing employees for mistakes, encourage them to speak up and point out organizational problems that may have contributed to mistakes.
When a problem is discovered, treat it as a learning opportunity rather than a chance to punish your employees. The outcomes will be clear communication, improved trust, and a reduction in the number of mistakes made.
“It's important to remember that solving problems, particularly when it comes to human error, is a team effort, which is why collecting people's opinions is so important,” says Josh Pelletier, CMO at BarBend. The most effective method of preventing human error in a company is to involve your employees in the solution.”
Toggling back and forth between several communication platforms can increase the potential for distraction and the risk of key information being lost between platforms.
“One of the most effective methods to accomplish this is to use a single, dependable (and secure) communication system,” says Sumit Bansal, founder and CEO of TrumpExcel. “To avoid having to juggle a variety of channels and means of communication (such as email, SMS, webchat, etc.), choose a single platform to use for all communication. This guarantees that your employees have access to all of the information they require in a single location, allowing them to execute their jobs more efficiently.”
Mistakes are bound to happen in the workplace. However, shifting the way we think about mistakes from being a nuisance to a learning opportunity can help to pinpoint the root cause and create better processes for the future.
Automating repetitive tasks can be a simple yet effective way to prevent mistakes from occurring. Secureframe makes it easy to automate evidence collection and continuous monitoring to help your business stay compliant with industry standards like SOC 2 and HIPAA and reduce your team’s workload.
For even more human error resources, we created this infographic to help illustrate the importance of human error prevention and offer a few more frameworks to help manage human error.