Originally published November 7, 2019 on The Western Producer
By Jeremy Simes
QUEBEC CITY — Many farmers in Canada are on the verge of burnout, according to a study, putting them at risk of developing chronic diseases and mental health challenges.
The new study, conducted by the University of Guelph in Ontario, found that nearly half of participants felt ineffective, disengaged or overextended.
Canadian farmers also scored higher in being emotional exhausted and cynical when compared to international data, said Andria Jones-Bitton, a researcher of farmer and veterinarian mental health with the university.
“The emotional exhaustion and cynicism scores are concerning because emotional exhaustion contributes to being overextended and cynicism contributes to being disengaged. This all works its way to burnout,” said Jones-Bitton while sharing the findings at the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association’s annual conference in Quebec City.
If pressures increase or persist, then people can become burned out, which comes with feelings of helplessness and extreme exhaustion.
In the study, 12 percent of participants were classified as burned out, while 40 percent of participants scored as being engaged.
The good news, Jones-Bitton said, is Canadian farmers scored higher in professional efficacy when compared to international data. Professional efficacy measures people’s feelings of competency at getting their jobs done.
However, she added, addressing the stressors that lead to burnout are crucial because it could have serious implications for farm productivity, labour retention and for the success of the industry.
“Burnout is associated with physical ramifications, like chronic diseases, diabetes, gastro intestinal disease and respiratory disease,” Jones-Bitton said. “We know it is associated with mental health ramifications, such as insomnia, depression and poor mental health outcomes.
To get their results, researchers pulled 1,100 participant surveys from the online national farmer mental health survey. They then categorized participants into one of five profiles: engaged, ineffective, overextended, disengaged and burnout.
They found that if participants had rated their physical and mental health as low, then there was a greater chance they would experience burnout.
As well, participants who reported experiencing financial stress and being dissatisfied with supports from spouses or the industry were more likely to have a high burnout score.
When it comes to gender, Jones-Bitton said, emotional exhaustion decreased with males as they aged, but remained constant over time. In females, emotional exhaustion increased in their mid-30s.
She explained women could be seeing more emotional exhaustion around that time in their life because they are doing farm work and off-farm work, primarily caring for children and managing the household.
She said burnout occurs when demands outweigh resources.
In farming, demands are immense and include disease outbreaks, extreme weather events, market instability, high workloads and lack of free time.
“Some of our participants have told us they need to be an expert in animal care, business management and sales and marketing,” she said. “It’s also difficult for many farmers to find workers to help with that burden.”
One way to help farmers feel less burned out would be by employing more workers to take on tasks, but Jones-Bitton said that is difficult. Labour shortages and high turnover are key challenges faced by the industry.
Another way to help farmers, she said, is by increasing resources through social support systems.
Those systems can come from getting together with friends, getting away from the farm once in a while, attending industry events and participating in recreational, faith-based or volunteer activities.
“Lots of farmers that were doing well were engaged in team sports, volunteering, 4-H clubs or faith-based groups,” Jones-Bitton said.
As well, the study found that spouses who had good communication and worked well together were able to weather storms much easier, she added.
“We need to support farmers,” she said.
“If we can’t do it by alleviating their workload or financial pressure, we need to explore opportunities to boost those social supports, as well as do additional research to develop interventions that help deal with stress and mental health.”