Thursday, March 1, 2018

Understanding Stress in Farming

Farmers are hard workers, resilient and independent.  While all of these traits are great characteristics for running a small business, they can also become barriers for speaking up and seeking help when it comes to their own or other's mental health.  Mental health in the farming industry has been something I've been interested in learning more about and that is why I am going to continue to support The Do More Agriculture Foundation this month through my Comments for a Cause program. 

Understanding Stress in Farming - Mental Health in Agriculture

I don't know if it is because I'm getting older and more aware, or if it is because people are becoming more open, but I feel like mental health is a growing concern with farmers all across the nation and world.  It is becoming such a growing issue that I had the opportunity to go to a workshop last week called, "Down on the Farm: Supporting Farmers in Stressful Times" put on by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Sheriffs' Association, USDA Farm Service Agency, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Minnesota Extension, and several more organizations.  I was impressed by the number of people attending the workshop and by the number of groups that supported it.

The workshop talked about how to take care of yourself, warning signs and symptoms, how to be an engaged and effective listener, and how to have empathy.  I found it really interesting that 1 in 5 adults are affected by mental illness.  The group that lead the workshop did a survey this past fall to a large group of individuals working in several aspects of agriculture and the top five stressors for farmers, that all saw an increase of concern from the year before were financial worries, anxiety, farm transfer, burnout and depression.

How do you know something's not right?  Some of the main clues that someone may be needing some mental help are:

  • Physical appearance (weight, grooming)
  • Inability to make decisions
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Mood change
  • Sleep changes - insomnia or sleeping all the time
  • Change in farmstead appearance
  • Field/livestock conditions
  • Distraction
  • Illness

Any of these look familiar?  The two that really popped out at me was the inability to make decisions and feelings of worthlessness.  These two things might seem minor, but can really take a toll on a person.  One of the nurses in attendance at the workshop (which by the way, I loved that there were people in healthcare in attendance) pointed out illness.  She said over 80% of disease is caused by stress!  The big take-home from this part of the workshop for me was, if you see something, say something.  

How to say something?  (This is where I loved that the Minnesota Sheriffs were involved in the workshop.  They really gave great insight from their trainings and real-life situations.)   If you see one of those warning signs above, the first thing you need to do is to be an active listener.  Ask the person open ended questions to find out how they are doing and feeling.  To help you understand them better, ask for clarification by paraphrasing what you did hear by using sayings like "What I'm hearing is..." or "Sounds like you are saying..." or "What do you mean when you say..".  When you reflect the speaker's feelings, they perceive you as empathetic.

Here are some tools you can use to be an engaged and effective listener:
  • Emotional labeling (respond to the emotions you hear in the person's voice rather than the content)
  • Paraphraising
  • Reflecting/mirroring (repeat the last word or phrase the person said and put a question mark after it)
  • Effective pauses (most people are not comfortable with silence, let them fill it in and talk)
  • Minimal encouragers (Oh?, When?, Really?)
  • "I" messages
  • Open-ended questions (begin with: how, when, what or where; don't use why questions and they sound judgmental)

Being empathetic with the other person is important for building understanding and trust.  Remember that feelings are universal, experiences are not.  Don't make assumptions about a person's feelings. Instead listen for their values.  Find out what they think is important.  And always remember to treat everyone with respect.  Listen without judgement and do not inject your own values into the situation.  This is about THEM, not about YOU!

Now what?  If you feel like someone is going through one of these situations, check in with them and listen.  Also, be sure to check back in with the person after a couple days or even a week later.  At the workshop they had some great resources from the National Alliance on Mental Health, the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  But I think the biggest thing I got from the workshop is just making sure you or the other person know that it is okay to talk about it and to get help.  One thing that one of the presenters said that really stuck with me was "somethings you can't get better by working harder"What an eye opening thing to hear!  As a farmer we are driven by hard work but sometimes we need to stop, reflect, and realize that we can't do it all on our own.  We're busy taking care of our livestock, land, family, etc. but we need to realize we can't do any of that if we don't take care of ourselves.

I encourage all of you to open up about mental health.  Be sure to share any tips or resources you have and remember to Comment for a Cause all month to help the Do More Ag Foundation spread awareness about mental health needs, concerns and resources.


  1. Wow! That is a wonderful cause and resource . I agree. Mental health issues seem to be cropping up more and more these days and maybe it is because we just are more open about things and share more about things that are happening that we used to. For whatever reason I love what Do More Ag Foundation does. Thanks for your support of them and for sharing them with us!

    1. Thanks for commenting Beth Ann! I'm happy people are being more open about mental health and that there are resources and support available, like Do More Ag Foundation.

  2. Love this, Val. This is such an important topic! Thanks!

    1. Thanks Bethany! I'm happy that people are paying more attention to mental health.