Helping Farmers Deal with Stress

Farm life with its country setting often is idealized, but as the complications and pace of agriculture have increased, so have the physical and mental demands on farmers. Safety and stress during harvest season cannot be ignored, says Margaret Van Ginkel, an Iowa State University Extension and Outreach human sciences program specialist and Iowa Concern Hotline coordinator.

“Farmers deal with everyday tasks of money management, decision-making and equipment maintenance,” Van Ginkel said. “Worry over large debt loads, government regulations, pest outbreaks, animal disease, negative publicity, rapid change within the industry and lack of control over the weather add stress and safety risks.”

Van Ginkel noted that farmers work long hours in isolation near their home environment, leaving them no place to escape the stressors, which makes it easy to see why farming ranks as one of the most stressful occupations in the United States.

“The physical and mental stress of farming can take a toll on a person’s health,” Van Ginkel said. “Ignoring those signs of stress can lead to fatigue and depression, increasing the risk for accidental injuries, poor decision-making, physical illness and more.”

The long days and late nights of harvest can lead farmers to push their limits to get crops out of fields, but research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms that breaks can help increase concentration and alertness while reducing the risk for farm accidents.

“Get out of the tractor, get out of the combine,” said Van Ginkel. “Take fifteen minutes to eat a sandwich on the tailgate of the pickup with your family. It will recharge your energy and help you think clearly again.”

Van Ginkel says there are physical signs of stress to look for in yourself or a co-worker. She references the Ag Decision Maker publication Managing Farm Business and Family Stress when she points out physical signs of stress include an increase in headaches, lingering fatigue, disrupted sleep patterns and more frequent illness; emotional signs include frequent anger and irritability.

Recognize signs of stress

Although adults involved in the agriculture industry may not come out and verbally share they are under financial or emotional stress, there are signs they may be in need of help, Van Ginkel said. These signs can be observed by friends, neighbors, veterinarians, physicians, clergy, teachers and other community members.

Suzanne Pish, a social-emotional health extension educator with Michigan State University Extension, encourages those living in rural communities to look for the following signs of chronic, prolonged stress in farm families:

  • Change in routines. The farmer or family no longer participates in activities they once enjoyed such as church, 4-H or visiting at the local diner.
  • Care of livestock declines. Animals might show signs of neglect or abuse.
  • Increase in illness. Stress puts people at higher risk for upper respiratory illnesses (colds, flu) or other chronic conditions (aches, pains, persistent cough).
  • Increase in farm accidents. Fatigue and the inability to concentrate can lead to greater risk of accidents.
  • Decline in farmstead appearance. The farm family no longer may take pride in the way farm buildings and grounds appear, or no longer have time to do the maintenance work.
  • Children show signs of stress. Children from families under stress may act out, show a decline in academic performance or be increasingly absent from school. They also may show signs of physical abuse or neglect.

“Many farmers who are used to working things out for themselves might be resistant to sharing their problems with others. Although asking for help might go against the nature of a strong, self-reliant farmer, obtaining support for stress-related problems usually provides the most effective and durable solutions,” Van Ginkel said. “It’s important to encourage and refer individuals and families under farm-related stress to needed resources.”

Call the Iowa Concern Hotline

Iowans can call the ISU Extension and Outreach Iowa Concern Hotline, 800-447-1985, for help and referrals for dealing with stress. The Iowa Concern website has a live chat feature as an additional way to talk with stress counselors. Agencies and professionals serving individuals and families can contact local ISU Extension and Outreach offices about Iowa Concern hotline number business cards available for distribution.

The following publications can be accessed at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach county offices or from the Extension Online Store.