Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Workaholism Leads To Farm Family Unhappiness

August 2, 2010

Workaholism is more than hard work and a sense of responsibility essential for farming success. It is valuing work to the point of neglecting basic needs of health, spirituality, social involvement, leisure and family commitments.

Many farm women are frustrated by their husbands’ priorities. They feel their husbands spend too little time cultivating their marriage, children, or other ingredients of a balanced lifestyle.

What is the attraction of farmers to work? Why do so many develop a workaholic response to farming?

- Feeling responsible. Farm work involves interaction with living systems. Success depends on timely interventions to nourish the growth of animals and crops. A farmer knows his management is responsible for their well-being. Farmers grow to love what they serve, similar to the way that a young mother bonds with her baby. The work is compelling because of this dependency and attachment bond.

- Achievement is visible. There is an art and craftsmanship connected with the upkeep of machinery and the use of innovative farming techniques. Good feelings come with the work being done and done well. Farm management involves lots of opportunities for decision-making and control of events. Owning and operating a farm involves plenty of creative challenge and problems to overcome. The farm’s development is visible and rewarding.

- High standards. If the pleasure from work is coupled with a need to be perfect, then a farmer justifies even longer hours to get things "just right." His standards for farm work are not compromised at the expense of other things he could be doing with his time. His standards also prevent him from delegating work that could easily be done by others.

- Work is so close at hand. Other professions have the advantage of a physical demarcation between home and work. Farm work is never finished. It is so legitimate. It is so close! The temptation to work late or to go back outside to work is powerful.

- Work is revered as a cultural value. It is part of the American dream that a person can get ahead by determination and hard work. Hard work plays a major role in the success of farming. It is a major dimension by which farmers pass judgment on one another.

Farming is an occupation where work demands far exceed the 40 hour work week. There are no standards for knowing when to stop. Men tend to judge their worth by success in work. This view of masculinity is based in early socialization practices and cultural reinforcement.

Traditional sex roles are reinforced by other farmers and family members who have similar views of life. Hard work can be a defensive tactic to preserve a sense of worth and identity.

- Fathers show the way. Children, as they grow up, observe their fathers’ approach to work, relationships, and other interests. A child sees graphically what a father does. In addition, a father may consciously teach a

workaholic orientation as a philosophy of success.

If the father disparages leisure, has limited outside interests and puts the farm ahead of his wife’s needs, then the child grows up thinking this is normal and natural.

- Workaholism attempts to overcome shame. Many workaholics come from a farm childhood where they experienced workaholism, alcoholism, abuse, or neglect. Feelings of low self-esteem come from these distorted family experiences. Children deaden their feelings to cope with the inner pain. To feel OK about themselves, they may adopt a lifestyle of achievement to attempt to earn the admiration and respect of others. Work is their answer for the lack of love and approval they feel.

Inner fears, shame, and feelings of inadequacy from childhood can keep an adult from disclosing feelings and thoughts in close relationships. The primary need is to prove competence through work.

The relative isolation of the farm and the ability to farm alone allows a farmer to make a good living and not interact with a lot of people. This isolation and workaholic behavior may mask the insecurity and the threat felt in relating to others.

- Farming is highly competitive work. Farmers grow up in a highly competitive world where they compare themselves to others in judging their self-worth. Limited experiences outside of farming and the farming community work against the formation of an independent judgment of worth.

Peer competition in school and sports continues into farming in adult life. Farm management techniques and decisions are commonly known and talked about. The compulsion toward work may also serve as a way of bolstering esteem and respect in the community as a whole. The improvements and ideas implemented are highly visible to fellow farmers. The pride factor fuels expansion of farm work.

- Easy to justify. Is it any wonder then that a workaholic farmer uses his knowledge of farming to discount demands or requests from his wife that compete with farm interests? Using the considerations of financial survival and good management as his basis, he justifies the intensity and amount of effort he puts into the farm.

His logic holds up if his standards for success are strictly farm related. Unfortunately, he has confused the ends and the means. The farm is not something to make successful for its own end or something to burnish one’s own pride. However, if a farmer views the farm as a tool to bring happiness to his wife and children, along with his own physical and mental health, then hard work has its place on a farm and doesn’t become workaholism.