Stress affects many workers, in different ways but in agriculture it can manifest itself in farmers predominantly working alone, which poses a risk to their mental health, according to a pychotherapist Tom Evans.
Mr Evans runs the TeamCare organisation in Midleton, Co Cork, and he says farming is vulnerable to external forces unlike other industries, and is frequently in crisis.
“The general public are well aware that farming can be a stressful occupation. We’ll regularly hear in our national media about the ‘latest crisis’ to hit the sector.
"The public understand that this isn’t just because farmers are an effective lobby group and are adept at grabbing the headlines.”
“Most farmers are self- employed, meaning there’s always a level of economic insecurity. This feeds into their reluctance to spend money on safety maintenance when a ‘botched’ work-around might do the job.”
“Another factor that sets them apart is their dependence on favourable weather conditions to achieve their targets.
"And because Irish weather is unpredictable, farming activity patterns will vary accordingly, with intensely busy bursts during good weather periods.
“Farmers generally have one eye on the clock and another on the sky, leaving them prone to sustained levels of heightened stress.”
“Most farm accidents happen during harvest season when farmers and contractors generally work long hours. It is a time when machinery density is high on the farm, and also the time when children are most likely to be about.
"When we add to this the variability in our weather and the urgency of harvesting, then we’ve a heady mix of stress and accident potential.”
“Rural communities and villages are no longer the busy social hubs they once were. Creameries, post offices, Garda stations, pubs, shops and, even churches have closed. Nowadays, farmers regularly work an entire day without meeting another person.
“Isolation can become a serious problem and will lead to loneliness. This may lead to depression and can impact negatively on self-esteem. It is now shown that isolation impacts the body at a cellular level.
“It leads to fight-or-flight stress signalling, which disturbs the production of white blood cells which are vital for a healthy immune system. In this way, isolation lowers the immune system.
“Sustained chronic isolation can lead to a reclusive existence described as social isolation. This is how farmer can become trapped in isolation.
“The condition prompts an unconscious response that causes one to go into self-preservation mode when alone.
"Even though we might be motivated to connect with other people, we will feel hyper-vigilant for social threats. We are then more likely to have negative interactions with other people, thus reinforcing the isolation.”
“Additionally, loneliness raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol and raises blood pressure,” he says.
The TeamCare psychotherapist, who is from a farming background himself, warns some studies show that social isolation can push blood pressure into the danger zone for heart attacks and strokes.
“Loneliness can also destroy the quality of sleep, as socially isolated people will wake up more at night, getting less sleep. The cycle created by social isolation and loneliness can be a downward spiral, with raised stress levels.
“And raised stress levels increase the likelihood of accidents,” he says.
For the psychotherapist, addressing psychosocial hazards like stress in the workplace can be difficult.
There is still a stigma associated with mental-health issues. Attitudes to self-care vary hugely among farmers, particularly men.
“Raising awareness and education around the issue is vital”, says Tom.
“Just like other occupations, getting involved in peer discussion groups and meeting like-minded people with a different outlook is therapeutic at many levels.”
“Social media is not for everybody but apps such as Facebook offer a lifeline to many people today.”
He says organisations like Macra na Feirme and the IFA are doing good work in this area.
He spoke recently at a mental health awareness meeting organised by Mitchelstown Macra, and found it was impressive and powerful, when close to 300 people from the farming community met in the mart premises to talk about mental health awareness.
“That is a positive, significant and therapeutic development,” says Tom.
He says health and safety programmes in the agriculture sector will need to address farmer isolation and stress management, as well as farmer’s attitude to self care.
“This change in attitude has been achieved in other industries to a great extent, for example in construction”.
“Farmers owe it to themselves and to their families to treat stress management and isolation with the same urgency as physical health issues,” he
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