Burnout and the Tragedy of the Commons

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Almost everyone has experienced the feeling of burnout at some point in their career or has come in contact with those who have. None of it is pretty. With the trend towards workplaces doing more with less, employee burnout is to be expected if timely action is not taken to prevent this from happening.

According to Merriam-Webster, burnout is exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration. Individual responses to prolonged stress may vary, but the common themes are the same: fatigue, loss of productivity and feelings of resignation and cynicism towards the work environment they are in. Not only employees and their families suffer from this condition – so do the workplaces they leave after losing the hope for things to get better.

People experience heightened levels of stress when they are chronically overloaded with work, face unreasonable deadlines and are simultaneously pulled in different directions with conflicting priorities. The underlying cause of all these problems is usually lack of organizational resources or ineffective use of the existing ones: projects get piled on top of each other without hiring additional staff so that the load can be spread more evenly. While no employer wants to lose their best talent, often enough there isn’t much they can do about it, if the burnout becomes apparent when it’s too late. Until then it’s gradually brewing under the surface. This is why employee burnout reminds me of the Tragedy of the Commons.

The Tragedy of the Commons is a concept described by the American ecologist and philosopher Garrett Hardin in his late 1960’s essay on overpopulation of Earth and overuse of its resources. The commons are the shared resources, and the tragedy Hardin warned us of happens when each individual acts strictly in his own best interests and puts extra strain on the system. Collectively these actions lead to the imminent depletion of all resources which eventually ends up harming everyone involved.

This theory is explained in literature based on an example from the medieval times when people raised their cattle on common lands. In order to maintain the communal resources in good usable conditions in the long run, community elders would assign a specific number of sheep or cows each farmer was allowed to graze in the shared pastures. This arrangement worked, but only until one villager decided to discretely add an extra cow to the pasture in the hopes that it would cause no harm to anyone while bringing him a tangible benefit in the form of extra milk. Indeed, the difference done by one extra cow could remain negligible, if every other farmer did not have the exact same thought process. Together they overused and depleted the pasture thus destroying the common resource for everyone.

The parallel between the Tragedy of the Commons and workplace burnout becomes apparent when we view the organizational resources as the pasture; different departments as individual farmers and the numerous projects as the livestock that overuse the pasture and eventually lead to its depletion. If people are the main resource in a workplace stretching them too thin will only last for so long. Eventually it will lead to lower quality, late delivery and the turnover of burned out employees which is analogous to the above mentioned consequences.

In the medieval times the solution to the Tragedy of the Commons was found in dividing the pasture among the farmers so that each controlled his own resources without affecting others. In modern workplaces this method will not work.  Division of resources between departments would only encourage the silo mentality which goes against teamwork and other important values. If adding new resources is not an option due to fluctuating workloads or unstable economy for example, then creating a system for better use of existing resources is more practical.

The solution doesn’t have to be complicated – it could start with creating a matrix, as simple as an excel spreadsheet that lists the resources needed for all of the organization’s existing projects. The level of the detail can be set as desired: for example, it can list the expertise and skill level required, the approximate timeframe for which it’s needed as well as the reference to the exact project this resource is needed for. Departments that require resources for their projects can refer to this centralized location to see what is available. This matrix has to be maintained to keep track of the actual use of resources and make necessary adjustments as things change. More sophisticated resource allocation plans can be created by incorporating the ability to run “what if” scenarios and finding the optimal use of resources while minimizing conflict. Along the way the team may come up with their own ways to fine tune the system to further improve it but a shared depository of resources is a good start.

By following the agreed upon resource allocation plan workplaces will be able to ensure that no one is depleting the assets at the expense of others. This will contribute to the positive work environment where people do not feel burned out and the tragedy of the commons does not have to become the tragedy of our workplaces.

Have you or anyone you care about has experienced burnout and do you have any tips of your own on how to address this problem?


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  1. Example: As the result of oil price drop and due to the cost cuts , these all together created workforce reduction, with massive layoffs. Even though the oil prices have slightly risen, companies are not yet re-hiring and as the result, the remaining employees,who was lucky enough to stay employed, are experiencing burnout. But they have no choice..

    1. Thank you for sharing Fidan. Your example is so relevant – this is so true and happens way too often in life. You are right, not everyone can afford leaving the situation where they experience burnout and they keep putting up with it until they no longer can…

  2. Thank you, Natella, great work! Missing the introduction story from your childhood though, always my favorite part! 🙂

    1. Thank you Jackie! Even though my childhood was indeed filled with enriching experiences, I guess i don’t have a story for every single occasion. 🙂 But I may know someone who does.

  3. Thank you Natella Jan, I loved it. Very educational, very relevant & common in nowadays workplaces, especially in private sectors!!

  4. One of the largest expenses in any business is People. Regular pay, overtime, commissions, and benefits all take a bite out of the owners return on investment. The Oil Industry owners in Fidan’s example used above are going to take every advantage possible to re-coup losses and grow profit before finally committing to adding salary. The new norm has every employee doing more with less and with the recent explosion and fire at Syncrude’s Fort McMurray Plant it would be interesting to see if employee burnout played a role.