No matter your status or rank in the Coast Guard—from the bottom ranks to the top; active-duty reservist, or civilian—you probably are familiar with the classic line: “We do more with less”; less money, fewer people, fewer resources, and less time. The line echoes through the ranks—sometimes in jest, other times spoken with true conviction. Whether meant as a joke or a motivator, the idea that the service does more with less strikes at the heart of what both drives the Coast Guard and holds it back. This creates a scarcity culture that is a barrier to the Coast Guard in many ways.
The Coast Guard has the people it needs to foster innovative ideas, leverage partnerships, and integrate its unique authorities with other services. But “do more with less” starts on day one. After completing their accession point training, new Coast Guardsmen go through a sink or swim process as they earn their qualifications at their first units. Junior officers are intentionally overworked to teach time and stress management, while nonrates are put through the ringer to “toughen them up” for the demands of the service.
To be more effective, the Coast Guard must reevaluate its culture. It must refuse to normalize a lack of resources and recognize the dysfunction of imposing intentional hardship on its members. Instead, the service must face the simple truth that it does less with less. As retention rates plummet and recruitment rates stagnate, the Coast Guard will be able to do even less, even as it faces increasing missions across the globe.
There’s a TED Talk making the rounds in the military community called “How to Make Stress Your Friend.”1 The first few times I tried to watch it as an active-duty Coast Guardsman, there was never enough time for the entire talk, so I always watched the first few minutes. In those minutes, in classic TED Talk style, Kelly McGonigal shocks the audience with unexpected statistics and the radical idea that stress is not actually bad for you. She asserts that the belief that stress is bad for you is more dangerous than the stress itself, and that the human stress response is what helps people rise to meet life challenges. The appeal of the talk for service members is that it ties the scarcity culture ingrained in us during the integration process.
In the field of economics and psychology, there is a niche that focuses on the psychology of scarcity. Scarcity is the state of having insufficient resources to cope with demands.2 Originally, this concept was studied in relation to the poverty cycle, and why impoverished people tend to make worse financial decisions than more wealthy people, but in recent years it has come to be applied to all different types of scarcity.3 The Coast Guard constantly grapples with resource scarcity, human scarcity, and time scarcity, and falls into many of the same traps identified in research on scarcity psychology.
Scarcity studies have found that, much like stress, scarcity seems to affect basic cognition and decision-making capabilities; sometimes for better, but often for worse. There are many situations in which short-term focus and cognitive exclusion are beneficial—the irony of writing this essay in a last-minute sprint to meet the time scarcity of a submission deadline is not lost on me—but when left unchecked, the long-term effects can result in myopic and impulsive behavior.
In the military, we are all familiar with those who seem perpetually to be in a state of putting out fires, both metaphorically and literally. Fires happen, but being stuck putting them out long-term is being stuck in a cycle of scarcity. Over time, cognitive function can become impaired and lead to suboptimal choices that, in turn, can create more scarcity. “Ironically,” one study notes, “scarcity can also result in a failure to notice beneficial information in the environment that alleviates the condition of scarcity.”4
It is one thing to take pride in frugality. It is quite another to normalize “doing more with less” to such a degree that the service fails to advocate for the funding to complete its basic missions while promising sweeping expansions to its mission set. Part of the problem is self-inflicted: The Coast Guard does not know how to let things fail. The lower ranks respond to budget restrictions by stretching their resources further and further. This pushes service members to continually extend the service lives of their ships and report mission success, which then fuels a narrative that all is well. Success leads to more burden, until the service lives and breathes this expectation of scarcity, both acknowledging it and failing to address it. It is a difficult conversation to have, and because of the scarcity spiral and normalization, it gets harder and harder.
Part of the reason service members love McGonigal’s TED Talk is because we all know that no matter the effects, scarcity—and thus stress—is essential to our work. Stress inherently is part of optimal performance, toughness, growth, developing new skills, meeting challenges, and the empowerment that happens when we push ourselves just a bit farther than we thought we could go. Positive stress fuels each of us to seize the endless opportunities and challenges that come with serving in uniform. Many of the tools we use to cope with stress, however, fall short because they emphasize the “you,” and not the “us.” Coast Guardsmen are taught to reach out for help, but seldom are they taught how to listen. In a culture of scarcity, it can be increasingly difficult to hear members call for help when everyone is isolated in the impaired-to-distress zones (yellow or orange) shown in the classic Yerkes-Dodson Curve (see Figure 1).5
The mental health consequences of scarcity on individual stress levels are potentially severe. In a 2018 comparison between branches, RAND found that the percentage of Coast Guard respondents reporting serious psychological distress and probable post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was nearly equivalent to that in the other service branches (see Figure 2).6 What is even more remarkable is that in a separate study conducted on stress-related mental health symptoms in the Coast Guard, nonmilitary trauma was twice that of military trauma in those meeting criteria for PTSD.7
Many are aware that prior type and severity of trauma contribute to PTSD. One commonly overlooked aspect of PTSD, however, is the exacerbating and unrelenting effect of normal sources of stress after the trauma.8 Although this factor is only one of many, the significance of PTSD as a predictor of retention makes this statistic difficult to ignore.9 The same RAND survey found that 10.6 percent of Coast Guard members met the criteria for serious psychological distress in the 12 months prior to the study, with 4.7 percent having considered suicide.10 The Coast Guard’s failure to address the potential shortfalls of its scarcity culture hurts its ability to manage limited resources and diminishes resilience in the event of crisis.
Connections Carry Us
There is a second half to that McGonigal TED Talk, the half I originally never had time to see. In it, Kelly McGonigal talks about how stress can release a chemical that many do not realize is a stress hormone—oxytocin, also known as “the cuddle hormone.”
The point is not to advocate for cuddling with coworkers. It is important, however, to recognize that in times of stress, hormones prompt people to connect with others. The early stages of stress initially make people social. Where there is robust social support, studies show that PTSD is less likely to develop.11 There is an instinct to be a united group, instead of individuals who happen to work together. That connection to community, values, and meaningful work is foundational.12
By and large, the Coast Guard manages to recruit incredible members at all ranks, but they are being held back by the service’s scarcity culture. The Coast Guard members are constantly having to step away from capacity-boosting creative projects for months at a time (or permanently) to deal with the demand of the service’s stretched resources.
Being first and foremost a team is where the change starts. There is a reason that military training traditionally involves groups carrying large objects together. The sense of camaraderie and trust that comes through shared stress is an important tool toward unit cohesion and human bonding. Yet we often carry our burdens alone in the field, from collateral duties to administration to even self-taught qualifications. There is misplaced pride in allowing younger members to sink or swim, instead of bringing them into the fold. Everyone has horror stories from their first tour, which are shared as proud experiences to maintain the cultural expectation of “eating our young,” and then shaking our heads about retention rates when the young move on. Instead of pride in scarcity culture, the Coast Guard must endeavor to make every first tour the best tour of new member’s career. It should be a time to explore and learn and feel supported as part of a team.
In the end, developing comprehensive solutions may be complex, but the first steps are not. It might behoove us all to stop asking what is wrong with the people who leave the service, and instead start asking what organizational failures are pushing people out. It might be as simple as collectively finding an hour each week to sit down and talk problems with everyone on the team. Use this time as an opportunity to discuss experiences and examples, allowing members both new and old to share. Maybe it is as simple as using gym time together. Maybe it is using your “but sir/ma’am” to your higher ups, asking for what you really need, advocating for halting that new resource-exhausting event when the current load is already stretching members to their limits. Maybe it is collaborative groupwork on collateral duties usually left to only one member. It does not have to be complicated or use up all the morale money, it just needs to be “us” instead of a loosely arranged group of individuals.
The Coast Guard must be careful not to confuse organizational growth with simply stretching its resources and members thinner and thinner. It must abandon scarcity in favor of forging an introspective, connective culture that can cultivate each service member’s success as a part of a team and carry us together toward mission success.
1. Kelly McGonigal, “How to Make Stress Your Friend,” Video, TED Conferences.
2. Jiang Zhao and Brandon M. Tomm, Psychological Responses to Scarcity (Oxford: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2018).
3. Sendihil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2013).
4. Zhao and Tomm, Psychological Responses to Scarcity.
5. Charlotte Nickerson, “The Yerkes-Dodson Law of Arousal and Performance,” Simply Psychology, 26 October 2023.
6 Sarah O. Meadows et al., 2018 Health Related Behaviors Survey: Mental and Emotional Health Among the Active Component (Santa Monica, CA: RAND 2018).
7. Richard J. Servatius et al., “Stress-Related Mental Health Symptoms in Coast Guard: Incidence, Vulnerability, and Neurocognitive Performance,” Frontiers in Psychology 8 (September 2017).
8. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “PTSD Basics,” 9 November 2022.
9. Margaret Tankard et al., Symptoms of Depression and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder as Predictors of Separation from the U.S. Military (Santa Montica, CA: RAND, 2021).
10. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “PTSD Basics.”
11. Meadows et al., 2018 Health Related Behaviors Survey.
12. Johann Hari, Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope (New York: Bloomsbury, 2018).