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The Effects of Incident Alert Fatigue on Reliability

Dan Holloran November 07, 2018

Monitoring & Alerting On-Call
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A stream of constant alerts leads to confused teams and slow incident response. Incident management solutions with effective alert routing, context, and prioritization help reduce alert fatigue and add reliability to your systems and processes. By understanding the negative effects of incident alert fatigue, you can take steps to mitigate them and build more robust systems.

Reliability in DevOps and IT isn’t only about effective monitoring and alerting of your infrastructure and applications. In fact, the human component of on-call incident response is often overlooked. In our State of On-Call Report, we found that, on average, 73% of an incident’s lifecycle is spent in the incident response phase. So, finding ways to limit alert fatigue and make on-call suck less needs to prioritized by any team.

Alert fatigue doesn’t simply happen overnight, it’s built up over time. Incident alert fatigue causes stress for team members and leads to a lack of clarity during on-call response. In fact, in a different issue of our State of On-Call Report, 63% of IT pros said alert fatigue is an issue, and 64% believe up to a quarter of all alerts are false alarms.

So first, let’s do a better job of understanding our enemy and take a look at what alert fatigue actually is.

Defining Alert Fatigue

Incident alert fatigue is the result of frequent alerts, especially unactionable ones, causing confusion that leads to slower incident response and remediation. The logic behind alert fatigue is quite simple: the more time you spend figuring out why you’re receiving alerts, the less time you get to spend actually working to fix problems.

Alert fatigue leads to negative psychological and physical effects for your employees, as well as negative effects on overall system reliability. The more stressed and sleep-deprived your team is, the less effective they’ll be for incident response. Human fatigue then bleeds into the features they build and maintain, hurting overall reliability.

Over time, teams may find themselves receiving numerous unactionable alerts. People may start to think this is normal alert behavior and start thinking, “on-call sucks.” But, frequent unactionable alerts should be a deviance from normal alert behavior, not the other way around. So, let’s discuss how alert fatigue becomes “normal”, and how this normalization of deviance leads to a poor on-call experience for everyone across your team.

Normalization of Deviance

In one of our webinars, Ending Alert Fatigue with Modern Security & Incident Management, we dive deeper into the the normalization of deviance. Chris Gervais, VP of Engineering at Threat Stack, equates the normalization of deviance in alerting to the adage of a frog gradually boiling in water. If you drop a frog in boiling hot water, it will jump out immediately. But, if you place the frog in room-temperature water and gradually heat it up, the frog won’t notice until it’s too late.

The same principles apply to alert fatigue and normalizing abnormal alert behavior. Over time, your team becomes fatigued and confused by the alerts coming in. Then, the monitoring and alerting structure becomes so overly complicated, your team won’t even know where to start when correcting the problem. So, it’s important to quickly acknowledge the presence of unactionable alerts and take corrective action to ensure alerts are meaningful to on-call responders.

You’ll see the initial signs of alert fatigue in people’s behavior, but if the problem isn’t addressed over time, alert fatigue will ultimately bleed into your applications and infrastructure–resulting in decreased system reliability.

Webinar: Ending Alert Fatigue

Alert Fatigue Effects

When alert fatigue goes unaddressed, your team begins to suffer burnout and incident management slowly becomes less effective. On-call responders become lackadaisical and a lack of clarity around alerts leads to further confusion. Let’s dive into some effects of alert fatigue to help you identify it before it gets out of control.

  • Behavioral Effects of Incident Alert Fatigue

The people on your team are the core component of any product or service you’ll ever build. So why would you ignore the way alert fatigue affects your people? Alert fatigue leads to anxiety, stress, and sleep deprivation–all of which often lead to negative physical effects. Not only are there physical effects, but the amount of emotional and physical pressure caused by alert fatigue can lead to cognitive impairment and job dissatisfaction. All of this spirals into longer incident response times, lack of alert context, and slower MTTA/MTTR.

By centralizing on-call scheduling, alert routing, and incident collaboration in one place, your team gets more visibility into alert context and can more easily set alert rules to limit unactionable alerts. With a deeper understanding of the alerts that come through, teams can be more efficient with escalating incidents and communicating with teammates. Providing an avenue for collaboration and incident transparency helps relieve your team’s stress, leads to faster incident response, and ultimately makes on-call suck less.

  • Systematic Effects of Incident Alert Fatigue

As alert fatigue leads to tired, confused team members, it consequently leads to a certain level of unreliability in your systems. With a high level of incident frequency and unactionable alerts, it’s easier for important incidents to slip through the cracks or become deprioritized. Then, on-call responders are working on issues that may not be of the highest priority. It creates a reactive system of incident response, rather than a proactive system of efficient CI/CD, incident management, and infrastructure/application reliability.

Building Reliability Through Reduced Alert Fatigue

Establishing a human-centric approach to incident management is step one toward building reliable services. Reducing fatigue and providing alert context to the people building and maintaining your applications and infrastructure will result in more robust systems. Alert fatigue is reduced most through intelligent alert routing, alert prioritization, and integrated communication tools.

Mitigate alert fatigue by giving your team the capability to silence and prioritize alerts, offering visibility into incident context, and providing multiple, integrated methods of communication. When your people are more effective, so are your systems. Listen to your people. Use feedback to make on-call suck less, limit alert fatigue, and build reliable services faster.

VictorOps is purpose-built to centralize your system monitoring, alerting, and collaboration tools, limiting alert fatigue. Sign up for a 14-day free trial to start leveraging monitoring data, on-call scheduling, custom alert rules, and incident response tools–all in one place.

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