Saturday, February 23, 2019

Don’t think you’re in this alone

December 3, 2018 by  
Filed under Fen Tiger

Farming can be a very stressful job – and farmers need to look after themselves, says Fen Tiger.

Nine weeks in total – that was the time away from the outside world. Not my words, but those of a farmer who was in trouble and who failed to realise it at the time.

The nine weeks started in mid-July and ended late September – harvest. The farmer in question was totally devoted to his cause. He had contact with his wife but left early morning and returned late at night – rarely seeing the children.

He said he felt fine. He said he wasn’t worried by his own company. And he never gave the isolation a second thought. That was until the nine-week period had finished and he dipped a toe in the outside world. Suddenly, he felt worried – sick and tense.

Suddenly, other people’s company made him uneasy. He felt withdrawn from the outside world. And so he retreated to the ring-fenced farm and seemed content. But the problem returned every time he stepped outside that secure farm fence.

Proud people

If you have to put a label on this, I guess the two words mental health spring to mind. It seems to be the topic of the moment. Even the government has announced fresh funding for mental health issues. But it is a conversation that the farming world often refuses to have.

Farmers are proud people and seldom ask for help. The abrasive and tough lifestyle masks many worries and issues. Alongside this, levels of depression are thought to be increasing as farmers cut themselves off and try to manage alone. Or refuse to accept there is a problem.

Stress levels are often high in agriculture. Which is probably one reason why the farming world has the poorest safety record of any UK occupation. Stress, tiredness, long hours – and isolation – all play an important factor in many accidents and illnesses.

Often a farmer is a one-man band so conversations and contact with other people are scarce. The habit of not going out is an easy one to fall into. There is always an excuse not to go off the farm. After all, jobs are always piling up and ready to do.

Getting away

All this means it is frequently difficult for farmers to open up. Everyone has some amount of stress. And a little of it often does no long term harm. But it can build up and too much can be an important contributor to mental health problems.

Things are often made worse by the fact most farmers live on site. Their only view is the yard or empty fields. Charities are always encouraging farmers and their families to take better care of themselves – offering advice on whatever concerns them.

Sometimes the tractor radio is the only voice heard all day. Yet from past experience I know full well that spending 10 or 12 hours all alone  on a tractor seat does not mean the minute you walk into the house you want to have a full blown conversation with family or friends.

Despite spending long periods in my own company, I still need time to calm down and have peace and quiet for a few minutes before talking to others. Making time to take your mind off farming is important – whether it is a night off or just getting a few hours a week  away from the farm.

Good to talk

It’s not surprising. We are constantly reminded of the turmoil facing the industry. There is Brexit and all its ramifications for direct payments, volatile grain prices and constant financial pressures regarding banks, profit and loss and the future of the family farm.

Most farmers will tell you the work itself is no problem. It is the worry of the farm’s future viability that weighs on the mind. With this often comes confrontation with other family members about the direction of the farm and constant battles between different generations.

It is easy to say reducing stress levels is sometimes all in the mind. But doing something about it is usually much harder. Some advise learning to move away from things you cannot control towards those you can. It is not easily done but having a clear head is important.

It is an emotive subject. Farmers are not always the best communicators. One person may handle stress fine – but another may not. My advice in this isolated profession is to make sure you make time for yourself and your family. There is more to life than work.

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