Sunday, March 3, 2024

All Black thinking tackles stress

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Farmers are under increasing pressure as changes in society, technology and climate leave them questioning their role as producers of food.
Nuffield scholar Corrigan Sowman (left) has found some of the best lessons for thriving in this new environment can be found with the All Blacks.
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Corrigan Sowman is the first to acknowledge stress in farming is nothing new. 

Factors of uncertainty, high stakes and small margins have underpinned farmers’ stress for generations.

But two other parameters, fast change and social media judgment have joined that uncomfortable trio in recent years. They raise pressure to levels many farmers do not have the tools to adequately deal with.

“International food supply systems are built around those established stress factors of high stakes, small margins and managing uncertainty,” Sowman says. 

“However, recent social media platforms and the hyper-connected world created through modern global communication systems have created the opportunity for a different level of judgment many farmers are unaccustomed to.”

Couple that with a sense of faster change and collectively farmers feel more overwhelmed.

Sowman said the result is an overwhelmed mind unable to make the clear decisions needed for our future food systems.  And worse, the natural reactions to the growing emotional stress can be interpreted by society in the wrong way.

“We are bred to fight, take flight or freeze for our own survival. This human instinct, however, can be misinterpreted by those that don’t understand our identity as farmers.

“We can be perceived as too defensive, running away from the hard problems or not changing quickly enough.

“Farmers often don’t know how else to deal with this new challenge and the rate of change sees them withdraw from what is coming while trying to comprehend the changes expected of them.”

Sowman’s own experience as a dairy farmer in Golden Bay makes him fully aware these factors are not going away and farmers need a better psychological toolbox to draw from to deal with them if they are to continue farming happily. 

He was drawn to work by Dr Ceri Evans, a consultant psychiatrist who works with businesses and teams, most notably the All Blacks since 2010.

Their 2007 shock defeat to France showed the team had made bad decisions under pressure, in a state of mind Evans categorised as hot – heated, overwhelmed and tense.

“Ceri identified they were red in their thinking, unclear. They needed to be blue  or calm and in control of their thought processes under those pressures, which would, of course, come again. They basically needed to learn to think about their thinking before acting.”

By 2011 the tools Evans put in place were paying dividends with victory against France in the World Cup, 8-7.

Evans has since written the book Perform Under Pressure outlining the pressure points and tools for individuals, groups and organisations to adopt in changing their thought processes. 

“I by no means claim to be a pioneer in this area and Ceri provides tools like breathing, mental reset exercises and learning to switch off.”

Sowman maintains New Zealand’s farming populace can identify strongly with what the ABs learned, not only because of the traditional interest many farmers have in following them.

“Like the All Blacks as a group, NZ farmers are a team operating on a global stage against far larger countries far better resourced in a highly competitive environment where the pressure is there to absolutely do your best. 

“In the past the way to perform better has been to get bigger, expand, intensify the operation. But that’s not as easy to do now. You can’t just farm your way out of it. We have to think out way up the value chain now and you won’t advance if your thinking is in an elevated agitated state.”

Rural mental health has deservedly got more attention in recent years thanks to the Farmstrong campaign efforts. 

Sowman sees his work dovetailing well into those efforts. 

Foundation thinking tools could provide a sound platform to get farmers in a better space, sitting well alongside the work Farmstrong is doing around managing depression, fatigue and general wellbeing. 

His work points to a wide issue of defining sustainability beyond just being less impactful on the environment. 

Sowman maintains genuine sustainability has to include the human factor of farming. Without healthy, functioning farmers any food supply claiming itself to be sustainable is based on a fallacy.

“It is ultimately about developing greater resilience in farmers and an ability to thrive in the face of adversity. At that decision-making level we have to support our farmers, to help them to learn to think better.

“It can be learnt as a means to protect against occupational stress. Interestingly, in my work I found little research in this area specific to farmers, only 20 out of 340 studies were specific to farming over almost 40 years.”

Sowman admits he has not perfected the art of thinking about his thinking but he’s now much more conscious of the role pressure takes in influencing it.

“It’s been a wake-up call for me to smell the roses a little more and enjoy the beautiful farm I’m on. We have a lot to be thankful for in this country, especially our ability to think differently.”

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