Irish farm families are under significant stress. Recent years have seen excessive rain, drought, fodder crises, and this year the pressure on beef farmers finally boiled over into a damaging dispute. Agriculture remains at the core of the rural economy and is a major employer and source of social well-being.
Farmers and their families are at the heart of this industry. Maintaining their health and well-being, including their mental health, will help farmers and their families cope during difficult times.
Farming is an almost unique occupation as it often involves the whole family. Another key statistic is that farmers have one of the highest rates of suicide of any occupation and there is growing evidence that those involved in farming are at higher risk of developing mental health problems.
What stresses farmers?
Farmers and their families face an array of stressors related to the physical environment, structure of farming families and the economic difficulties and uncertainties associated with farming, which may be detrimental to their mental health. This suggests a link between times of crisis for farmers and increased levels of stress, anxiety, mental health problems and suicide rates. This indicates that during times of crisis, farmers need additional support given their vulnerabilities. Has this happened in the beef crisis?
Farming has been listed as one of the ten most stressful occupations in the world and researchers from Europe, the USA and Australia found that farmers experiencing a demanding work environment coupled with low control and low social support can develop stress and strain, mental health problems and depression.
Farm organisations, Teagasc and Mental Health Ireland (MHI) have launched a joint publication called 'Coping with the Pressures of Farming'. Yet, given the importance of agriculture to the Irish economy, I am amazed and annoyed that there is not more effort by industry and government to research this area and develop some more targeted solutions.
Two biggest worries
Not unlike many other workers, but perhaps magnified by the unique uncertainties of working the land, two of the most commonly identified stress factors among farmers are worrying about finances and work.
Financial worries included irregular and uncertain income and debt; the effects of government regulations and compliance with these, bureaucracy, and the amount of paperwork required. Many farmers take additional jobs off the farm to supplement their income, rather than sell the farm which is running at a loss.
Farmers worry about high workloads, time pressures, long working hours especially during peak times such as harvesting or calving, difficulties with understanding new technology and solitary work. The most commonly reported symptoms reported were sleep problems, feeling irritable and down, fatigue, and high rates of stress. Physical health problems such as farm-related injuries, chronic back problems and respiratory problems were identified.
With so much stress in the farming community, is it any wonder that there is a high rate of accidents on farms? Indeed, the Health & Safety Authority report that the fatality rate in agriculture is far higher than any other economic sector. A large proportion of all fatal workplace accidents occur in agriculture, even though just a small proportion of the workforce is employed in farming. The level of farm accidents is not decreasing. Research indicates that, in general, farmers’ attitudes to safety only change after a serious injury occurs. The old and the young are exceptionally vulnerable to death and injury on Irish farms. 25 people died last year on Irish farms.
We need to look after our famers and their families; they are a thread that connects us all on this little green island.