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.

Warning Signs Beware

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.

Suggestions to Avoid Exhaustion

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.

Safeguards Against Burnout

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.

Warning Signs Are Everywhere

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.

Farming is a Community – Take Care of Your Health

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.  But, through all of this we must listen to our bodies.  The body has alarm signals that will sound off when it is no longer balanced.  Listen.

Justin MacCurdy

Comments (8)

  1. Carol

    Reply

    Hi, this is a very motivational article form you, a lot of people always shy away from farming activities because of the dirty activities associated with it but I say that I respect farmers a lot because without them we the lazy ones would not have anything to feed on.
    You post is a very cogent one with warning signals on the likely hazards associated with farming burn outs.
    As we all know that farming activities is prone to a lot of hazards and injuries especially for non-mechanised farming and if care is not taking can destroy the plan for a fruitful agricultural year.

  2. admin

    Reply

    Thanks for your comment, Carol. Farming can be a dirty unforgiving job if not approached properly. My grandfather always preached washing your hands every time you come in the house. In today’s farming age biosecurity has become an even more important issue that it ever has in protecting the health of the farmer and livestock/produce. That being said, there is nothing like getting your hands dirty…before you wash them of course.

  3. Twack Romero

    Reply

    I have to say I was drawn to your article by the headline, although I am not a farmer. I’m glad I did because your post can be applied to many more career paths, than just farming. You have put together a detailed guide in how to avoid something that is all to common in modern day life.

    I don’t know if you’ve suffered from ‘burnout’ or just come close and managed to curtail the end result by steering yourself inthe right direction before it happens. Maybe it was more down to witnessing this very thing, in one of your fellow farmers. Either way you have an uncanny insight into the very insiduous nature of work-related stress and how it can manifest into a full-blown break down.

    Reading though the list you would think that most of it would be down to common sense. I know It’s easy to say that from the outside. When you are consumed by work, then it is not so easy. We also have a tendency to brush them aside because we don’t have ‘time’ for them, being so busy. Sometimes we have to lower our expectations, only everso slightly, in the hope that it takes some of the pressure off. Longevity in business and life is down to how well we maintain that work/life balance.

  4. MrBiizy

    Reply

    Thank you for sharing this guide on how to prevent farming burnout. Being in a state of burnout is truly not a good experience at all so it’s better we take it easy on ourselves and do what’s right. So I find this guide truly useful in doing what’s right so as not to be burnout like the father you talked about.

    One thing I have always find myself do is overworking myself which I’ve learnt isn’t good and now I have gotten another warning again.

    Regards!

  5. StephenThiam

    Reply

    Great talk about burn out. You are right many people do not know they are burn out. Life is full of stress and everyone has his level of stress. Work stress caused us burn out. If we can treat and deal our stress well, we can avoid burn out. I know it is not easy. You have to know why you feel stress and deal with positive thinking. Stress can come from lack of ability or knowledge to complete your job. Positive thinking is looks for help from friend who have better knowledge or experience to assist you to complete your job. Some stress come from own perfectness, just yourself not satisfy with work result. Positive thinking is have you do your best to get good result. If yes, you should not blame yourself too much. Positive thinking is do better for next job. In our life, we do our best for every task but we cannot expect every task will get satisfactory result. There are some uncontrollable event can affect your job result. Try to reduce impact in next similar task. You should reward yourself to see improvement in every task you do in future.
    Keep up yourself and wish your website can help many peoples to avoid or reduce burn out. It is a good direction to help other to be happy to face their daily life trend.

  6. admin

    Reply

    You nailed it on the head You are absolutely right with your insights, this article could easily be applied across any profession. Having experienced all the above first hand I hope this article can highlight the warning signs of burnout so they can find a work/life balance.

  7. Stephen Thiam

    Reply

    Great talk about burn out. You are right many people do not know they are burn out. Life is full of stress and everyone has his level of stress. Work stress caused us burn out. If we can treat and deal our stress well, we can avoid burn out. I know it is not easy. You have to know why you feel stress and deal with positive thinking. Stress can come from lack of ability or knowledge to complete your job. Positive thinking is looks for help from friend who have better knowledge or experience to assist you to complete your job. Some stress come from own perfectness, just yourself not satisfy with work result. Positive thinking is have you do your best to get good result. If yes, you should not blame yourself too much. Positive thinking is do better for next job. In our life, we do our best for every task but we cannot expect every task will get satisfactory result. There are some uncontrollable event can affect your job result. Try to reduce impact in next similar task. You should reward yourself to see improvement in every task you do in future.
    Keep up yourself and wish your website can help many peoples to avoid or reduce burn out. It is a good direction to help other to be happy to face their daily life trend.

  8. admin

    Reply

    Absolutely, Stephen. Sometimes we take too much upon ourselves without being properly prepared for the task, job, work, etc. That unfortunately, in a start up business, is a defining feature of new business. Although I’ve been farming for years, much of my time on the family farm was spent as a laborer for my family and not in a leadership role. In diversifying the farm, I found many challenges and little help in the way of problem solving, which probably was a factor in my burnout. Burning the wick at both ends of the candle without a ton of support because everything was so new to us. Now, stresses are less because we, as a family, no more about our operation than we did 6 or 7 years ago. You make a great point about reaching out for help and overcoming personal pride to do that is the key.

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