Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Dairy worker burn-out investigated

Concern over dairy worker burn-out has prompted industry-wide research with farmer stress emerging as a serious risk to the industry. Annette Scott reports.

An emerging issue for farming communities over recent years has been acknowledgment that the wellbeing of the people who live and work on farms is an integral part of a sustainable agricultural industry.

Three years ago an AgResearch farmer discussion group identified an issue concerning mental health and wellbeing in the farming community.

This concern led to an investigation programme by AgResearch social scientist, Dr Neels Botha. With an initial grant from the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Farming Fund, Botha conducted a number of case studies with farmers to identify the extent and causes of issues such as depression, anxiety or stress.

“Farmers can experience acute distress as the result of immediate events over which they have little or no control such as the weather, personal health and their physical ability to do the job.” Dr Neels Botha, AgResearch

As a result of the case studies and discussions within the sector DairyNZ supported the development and implementation of a mental wellness programme as part of its Dairy Farmer Wellness and Wellbeing Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) co-funded project.

The research programme is designed to build a picture of what is happening on farms nationwide, so better support networks and resources can be developed to help farmers before they hit the wall.

Over the past three years Health Pit Stops, private health screening programmes, have been set up at large farmer events – giving farmers the opportunity to take a free physical and mental health screening test.

Results revealed that 17% of farmers screened for positive mental un-wellness and a further 9% reported some form of emotional un-wellness. This compared to an average of 11% in the national population.

“So there is clearly an issue for the farming community, there are definitely aspects of a farming lifestyle that can impact on farmers’ mental health,” Botha said.

Farmers who experienced this type of un-wellness can experience difficulty in making decisions. This had potential to affect farm performance, animal welfare and other productivity factors.

The issues of farmer stress and impacts on farming were complex and it was difficult to quantify cause and effect. The impact to farm income due to stress-related decision making and farm management impairment suggested millions of dollars of dairy income could be at risk.

The principal causes of farmer stress were relationship and staff issues, personal or family health issues, and financial concerns or uncertainty. Most farmers who experience mental health issues reported a combination of different factors which collectively contributed to their distress.

“Farmers can experience acute distress as the result of immediate events over which they have little or no control such as the weather, personal health and their physical ability to do the job.” This is combined with chronic concerns, such as financial pressures, compounding stress and anxiety.

Botha said the Health Pit Stop programme would continue to collect data and improve understanding of the issues involved and in addition the programme would be expanded to include larger or corporate farms with higher numbers of staff.

The programme was widely supported and endorsed by farmer groups and the wider rural community. A biannual reference group included Federated Farmers, the Rural Support Trust, the New Zealand Institute of Rural Health and the Dairy Women’s Network.

Rural bankers, consultants and other farm advisors had also expressed interest in the programme. They could be trained to help spot evidence of people who may be at risk and provide them with some support.

The challenge was to get farming couples and farm staff to visit their GPs and talk to them about their physical and emotional wellness so that problems could be identified and dealt with effectively. “Isolation and poor GP availability in rural areas are real issues in this respect.”

DairyNZ Strategy and Investment Leader (People and Business) Dr Mark Paine said the programme contributed to profitable, sustainable and competitive dairy farming on several fronts.

It would also help to improve the general attractiveness of working on the land, ensuring a vibrant future for the dairy industry, Paine said.

Total project investment from 2010 to 2012 was $164,250 from PGP funding, DairyNZ and industry partners.

Next week: Dealing with stress

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