Dairy Farmer Wellness – Stress and fatigue, what do we know?
It is well known that dairy farms are places where people work hard to maintain a lifestyle they choose and love. But things are not always easy and success does not come easy. Dairy farming can be a tough and stressful yet meaningful undertaking. Most farmers love the lifestyle and are willing to make substantial sacrifices to stay on farm and run a successful business. For some it does not work that well all the time and there are many opinions about the effects of farming on people’s lives. We have done research into finding out what is happening on dairy farms in terms of farmer stress and fatigue.
Some of the findings are not surprising. Half of the (over a 1,000) dairy farmers we interviewed over the last three years do not seek help or speak up when they are severely stressed and they tend to under report their mental health. That means they say things are okay while they are not. The causes of dairy farmer stress are well known and we found that, although finances can cause stress, there are other factors that also have an impact and that the causes of stress are actually inter related. Put differently they work together to create stress. How they interact can also be quite different for different individuals and people’s tolerance levels are different. Despite these variations there are several causes of stress that seem to plague dairy farmers.
In 2012 we found that the most mentioned farming related cause of stress was workload and that the second most mentioned cause of stress was managing staff. Debt and farming expenses were the two most common financial causes of on farm stress. Poor health of family and not the farmer caused the most stress, not farmers’ own health. Farm staff and children were mentioned the most times in terms of relationships that cause stress on farms.
During the same year the factors that caused on-farm stress, in order of importance, were: staff management and staff relationships; poor health of people other than the farmer; debt and farming expense, and; workload. Stress manifests itself in different forms. We found for example, that 10% farmers experience sleep disturbances because of stress and 10% screened positive for depression and or anxiety.
Interestingly, 17% farmers were concerned about not being able to keep up with the physical demands of farming tasks, because their energy levels, body strength and or mental sharpness/abilities (like memory) have been decreasing.
Stress and burnout are closely related. Burnout happens when a person disengages from work and experiences fatigue. Disengagement has to do with a sense that farming has lost its meaning and things become very dull. In 2012, 21% of the farmers we interviewed suffered from high to very high levels of exhaustion, caused by mental and physical fatigue. 11% of them had a high burnout score, which means they are burned out. Exhaustion was a bigger issue than disengagement from work; most farmers clearly love their farming lifestyle.
Perhaps it is time to revisit how farming success is measured. Some people pay a very high price to achieve what they believe is success ? more than they bargained for. Many farmers have learned that financial success or land ownership is but one of several aspects of successful farming. When one is deeply depressed, severely anxious or farming has lost it meaning and it feels that there is simply no reason to go on is when lots of money or owning dairy a farm or two means very little. Perhaps we need a better balanced measure of successful farming.
Health PitStops are available at most major industry events. The information gathered will continue to grow and our knowledge will expand, providing us with an opportunity to design and implement, with other stakeholders, evidence-based ways of supporting stressed farmers. Feedback from stressed dairy farmers about how they could be supported has shown that they want to be reminded all the time of the benefits of farming with less stress. They also want telephone numbers handy for the day they need it. They would furthermore welcome people who they interact with, like farmers and agricultural service providers, to be up-skilled in recognising the symptoms of distress and in knowing how to deal with sufferers when they come across them. They want “mental health first aiders” of sorts; people who are trained to provide help when needed.
We are actively pursuing all these options in collaboration with other stakeholders.
The Dairy Farmer Wellness and Wellbeing Programme that was led by Dairy Women’s Network focused on physical and emotional wellbeing, including reducing stress and fatigue, and building networks to support dairy farmers to improve their health.
This programme of work was funded by the NZ dairy farmer levy through DairyNZ and the Ministry for Primary Industries through the Primary Growth Partnership.
Physical Health Pitstops continue to be run by Dairy NZ and the NZ Institute of Rural Health. There is also an emotional wellbeing assessment, carried out by AgResearch, on offer.
These assessments provide farmers with immediate information about their health and, in many instances, have resulted in farmers taking action to reduce life-threatening conditions.