burn out

Learning Through Trial by Fire: How to prevent farming burnout

Farming can test one’s mettle no matter your prior level of experience.  The tail of the tape can read very differently for each individual farming journey.  If one is not careful, the fiery flame inside your heart can quickly become extinguished and leave you burnt out.

Although I’ve been working the farm from a young age, like the previous generations before me, the past three years have been particularly trying as we attempt to establish ourselves as local food producers on top of running our cow calf operation.  This blog attempts to elucidate some of the warning signs for burn out.

Entrepreneurial pursuits can, in retrospect, seem as though they went very smoothly when one peers back into their origins from a perspective of feeling burnt out.  However, burnout can begin in the very first year if we blaze into terra nova without any respect for our mental and physical health.  It is important to always lend an ear to voices of reason and advice concerning the level of work one does in attempting to bring a farm to sustainability.  Often my parents have kindly suggested that I do one of the following: (1) Slow down, (2) Stop doing so much, and/or (3) take a break and do something fun.  However, we can’t simply assume that our loved ones will have timely advice.  If we fail to have conversations about our emotional, physical, and spiritual health the tell-tale signs of burnout might go completely unnoticed and we’re left to suffer.  Thankfully, farming is usually a family endeavor with shared responsibility.  Our co-workers are often our family, so there is a pre-existing safeguard in place.  Attending to advice from parents, siblings, etc. can free us from the mental stress of not living up to expectation and remind us that others can see our fatigue and stresses that we wear on our faces.

It is important to have some safeguards in place as a prevention for the damaging effects of stress.  They may seem like common sense but often these safeguards are overlooked as we strive to meet our goals.  Entrepreneurial nearsightedness sometimes keeps us from seeing the bigger picture.

  1. A routine, preferably written on paper or on your smart phone notes can visually remind you of what lies ahead in the day, week, or month.  As we know, there are only 24 hours in the day, 12 of which should be spent working, 6 – 8 sleeping, and 4 -6 spent with family.  I am by no means a type A personality but learning to write lists allows me to prepare for a week ahead and feel a sense of accomplishment as jobs are stricken from the farmer-do list.
  2. Eat well.  Having a big breakfast has always been a staple ingredient in our recipe for work on the farm along with snacking through the day and a large supper.  Do not skip meals.  Our bodies require a substantial amount of nutrition and it’s recommended that you eat your own supply, seriously.  I even have an extra plant protein shake a few times in the week to repair the muscular wear and tear from the daily grind.
  3. Listen to your loved ones.  Taking time to converse with those closest to you will help you identify areas of imbalance between home and work life.  It’s often overlooked and is a best practice for any farmer, especially those who travel the work path alone.
  4. Set a limit to your work day.  There were days this year that I worked, manual labor, 12 – 14 hour days for extended periods of time, often working into the moonlight or with flood lights to finish a job I started or wanted to get a head on. Given that I don’t live on the farm but nearby, 8 km away, I try to be home before it’s time to put the kids to bed so I can spend quality time with them and unwind.  Going to bed with work on the mind keeps us from resetting our batteries and robs us of a sense of fulfillment by allowing us to think that we didn’t accomplish enough.  Get your rest, shut it down early, and get to it early in the morning. If you don’t establish this as a best practice you will find yourself experiencing an unceasing fatigue.
  5. Relax.  Easier said than done  Find a time at least once a week to do something that brings you peace and rest.  Whether it be prayer, music, or a walk in nature.  Do something where you cast your worries aside and focus on something outside of yourself.  We can’t live our lives forever walking backwards into the future.  We need to find outlets to release stresses, worries, regrets, and mistakes so we don’t carry them with us.  I find time to pray, time to walk through the fields, time to kayak, and time to anything completely unrelated to work.

You’ll never get anywhere you’re meant to be by travelling yesterday’s road.  It’s a new day, find a new way.

Prior to investing a great of time and energy into revitalizing and diversifying the farm I spent time competing in the highland games and in preparation for events, in the gym.  I weighed a solid 220 lbs but in the three years of farming I dropped 25 lbs on account of overworking, not eating a high enough calorie intake, and high levels of stress,  Burn out can happen in the snap of the fingers if we don’t pay attention to warning signs.  Below is a generalized listing of some of the warning signs that I have paid attention to:

  1. Nagging fatigue.  We all know fatigue leads to poor decision making and a higher incidence of farm related injury.
  2. Anger outbursts.  Nobody is perfect and this unfortunately happens when we are pushed to a point outside of our mental flexibility.  The key is to be real, accept that it happened, and ask for forgiveness if someone else was on the receiving end.  How easily we can misdirect our anger so take responsibility for it.
  3. Irritability/Frustration
  4. Feelings of loneliness.  If you put too much on your plate we may feel helpless and start looking for help.
  5. Weight loss
  6. Altered perception of events.  For example, small troubles are amplified to a higher degree. It can take the form of worrying about the state of your health
  7. In severe cases, panic attack, tremors, and high anxiety.

I first thought about writing a blog on burn out after a conversation with another farmer at a local saw mill.  I had driven back, by myself, to get a load of shavings for bedding for our chicken and cattle.  At the time, I thought it strange that the woman and her kids loaded their truck while the father and husband sat in his truck.   I struck up friendly conversation with them to find out who they were and learned that the husband was burnt out.  His doctor had put him off work.  I felt terrible for him knowing how difficult it would be to let go of a passion, even if just for a while.  Flash forward three years later and here I am writing this caveat to help any of you who may be on the verge of burn out or are currently experiencing it.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking it can’t happen to you because, it can.  Set some safe guards in place and make yourself acutely aware of warning signs.  Everyone responds to stress differently so your safeguards and warning signs might not be written on this list.  Take some time to write them down and save yourself the stress.

Finally, entrepreneurship is characterized by innovation.  We purposely cast ourselves into the fire as we establish our businesses.  We have to learn through trial by fire.

Categories: burn out, family farming, mental health, stress | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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