Purdue University
Cooperative Extension Service
West Lafayette, IN 47907

Managing Farm-Related Stress for Safety's Sake

Bill Field, Extension Safety Specialist, Department of Agricultural Engineering

All occupations are accompanied by stress factors that individuals must learn to cope with. Contrary to popular belief, agriculture is no exception. As the complications and pace of agriculture have increased, many of the physical and mental demands on farmers and their families have become greater.

Though not all stress is inherently harmful, individuals whose judgments or reactions are impaired by stress or a combination of stresses (such as financial problems, physical fatigue, noise, or temperature) often become increasingly vulnerable not only to accidents but also to stress-related diseases and mental disorders. Frequently the farmer's strenuous efforts to keep up with farm work family and financial obligations, and a rapidly changing world result in symptoms such as insomnia, ulcers, colitis, hypertension, headaches, and changes in behavior such as temper outbursts and periods of depression. History also shows that suicide is more common in rural areas during periods of severe economic depression.

The farmer's wife is often the greatest victim of pressures associated with the operation of the farm business. Divorce statistics suggest the incidence of unhappy marriage might be as great among rural people as is found in urban areas. Isolation and loneliness are often tremendous burdens with which the farm wife may have to deal, and they become especially influential if other forces are preventing the farm family from remaining a closely-knit unit.

An important characteristic of a husband-wife farm operation, like that of many small businesses, is that it is usually a joint economic venture. A major investment in the business, an economic loss, or significant decision will usually affect the individual or economic goals of the wife as much as those of her husband. This partnership, which at times may be as much out of necessity as it is out of choice, will place additional stresses on the marriage relationship and often have a significant influence upon the mental and physical well-being of the children. It seems well founded to suggest that an unstable marriage or one that dissolves can have as great an impact on the farm business as any market, managerial or environmental factor.

There are no quick and easy solutions for successfully and safely dealing with the many pressures associated with farming. Yet there are many ways that stress and its influences can be minimized. Evaluate the following suggestions to determine which might apply to your present situation:

  1. Keep physically healthy by getting adequate rest, eating properly, and receiving regular physical checkups. In addition, the need for physical exercise has become more important for many farmers who have changed from a labor-intensive life style to a more sedentary, capital-intensive one. Several studies have shown that the physical activity involved with running a modern, highly mechanized farm is not sufficient to maintain good physical fitness.

  2. Establish realistic goals for yourself, your family, farm, livestock, machinery, and for those with whom you work and do business. Unrealistic goals and expectations generally result in failure. A continued pattern of real or perceived failure creates high levels of frustration and is a basic cause of depression.

  3. Learn to forgive. Anger, bitterness, and resentment towards others over a long period usually hurts you more than it does them. Confronting those with whom you have differences and attempting to clear the air may prove to be extremely effective medicine. In some cases you might even learn that your differences were not all that important.

  4. Balance your drive for efficiency and productivity with a desire to live a quality life style. During the past few years, farmers have been led to believe that efficiency, productivity, and timeliness should be sought at nearly all cost because of their long-term payoffs. Yet there is little evidence to suggest any correlation between high levels of efficiency or productivity and lower levels of physiological or psychological stress. In fact, one study suggests that farmers are generally less satisfied today than a typical cross-section of the national work force.

  5. Take time to develop your faith. It has been wisely stated that a man who is too busy to pray or worship with his family is too busy and needs to rearrange his priorities.

  6. Set aside prime time for your family to develop as a unit. Attending church together, going to an evening ball game, or staying at home reading and enjoying each other's company is too often reserved for leftover time. A strong family provides a tremendous reservoir to draw upon during periods of crisis and helps make the daily grind a little easier to take.

  7. Make every effort to resolve frustrating problems before attempting to engage in complex or hazardous tasks such as planting and harvesting operations. Just as a dealer appropriately recommends preharvest machine preparation to improve performance, efforts to confront and deal with unresolved conflict might result in even greater productivity, less downtime, and fewer mishaps and personal injuries.

  8. Avoid medications, unless prescribed by a physician, to mask the symptoms of physical and emotional problems. Being one's own doctor can lead to extensive use of drugs, some of which are habit forming. Even "over-the-counter" medications can hide the symptoms of serious stress-related problems which then remain untreated. Furthermore, certain drugs are actually a source of stress (fatigue and drowsiness) and can seriously impair your performance and safety.

  9. Use caution when borrowing money and making large purchases. This should prevent many high-stress financial situations from developing. Impulse buying often turns sour. The economic advantages and disadvantages of each large investment should be weighed carefully, as well as the long range physical and emotional burdens it might create for yourself and your family. In determining repayment rates, neither the returns for labor nor family needs should be short changed. This suggestion applies very appropriately to investments in machinery which probably have more direct impact upon farm family economics than any other factor except crop and livestock prices.

  10. Eliminate hazards from the workplace and home to reduce the subconscious stress that is often associated with working and living in a hostile environment. Continually working around faulty equipment, unshielded hazards or poorly maintained shops and living in a house with questionable electrical wiring or other hazards can bring about high levels of frustration and anxiety.

  11. Utilize local resources to the greatest extent possible when making farm management or other important economic decisions. County Extension agents, professional consultants, bankers, vo-ag teachers and Extension specialists are excellent sources of information. Use these people as a sounding board for your ideas.

  12. Seek professional help (clergy, physician, teacher, social worker, etc.) when personal, family, or farm-related problems become overwhelming or appear unsolvable. Asking for help goes against the grain of our society's idea of a strong self-reliant individual, but it usually provides the most effective and durable solutions to stress-related problems.

Operating farm machinery for long hours during peak planting and harvesting periods can also cause high levels of stress. There have been a number of stress-coping techniques developed for airline pilots, astronauts, and long-distance drivers that appear applicable to this type of stress. For example, when operating machinery for extended periods:

  1. Take frequent rest breaks to stretch your arms and legs, restore blood flow, and mentally relax. Short, periodic rest breaks are more effective than longer, less frequent breaks. Breaks should be for rest and not for maintenance or adjustment of equipment.

  2. Play the radio or tape player, and utilize the time on the combine or tractor to listen to educational tapes or quiet music or to learn a language.

  3. Consider equipping tractors and combines with a two-way radio in order to communicate with the house and other workers. Keeping in touch provides added security and breaks up the long hours.

  4. Try isometric exercises to improve circulation and prevent stiffness from developing. Some of these exercises can be done on-the-go but generally should be done during the rest break.

  5. Breathe properly to ensure an adequate supply of air. Often as the day passes and fatigue sets in, breathing becomes more irregular and shallow, reducing the supply of oxygen to the lungs.

  6. Take time to enjoy the scenery. Noting special happenings during the day such as a pheasant nesting in a hedgerow or a spectacular sunset provides something positive to share after returning home.

Do you want to know more?

Free Publications from the MDC Mailing Room, 301 S. 2nd Street, Lafayette, IN 47905 (authored by Randy Weigle, Iowa State University):

Available from the following publishers:

Stress, Blue Cross Association, 840 North Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois 60611.

Stress and How To Live With It, Dr. Jerry Robinson and Cheryl Tevis, Successful Farming, Locust at 17th Street, Des Moines, Iowa 50336.

For more information, contact Bill Field, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, phone: 317-494-1191 or e-mail: field@ecn.purdue.edu

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Cooperative Extension work in Agriculture and Home Economics, state of Indiana, Purdue University, and U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating; HA. Wadsworth, Director, West Lafayette. IN. Issued in furtherance of the acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914. Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service is an equal opportunity/equal access institution.