Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Avoiding Burnout In Agriculture

December 4, 1995

Farmers typically put in longer hours than people in most other jobs or professions. David Kohl, an agricultural economist and lecturer from Virginia Tech at Blacksburg, Virginia, has a rule of thumb for when farmers work too hard. "If you work more than 3,000 hours on the farm or 500 hours off the farm in a year, your business, family or health will suffer."

Farmers fail to put a priority on leisure time. When they overwork, farmers get uptight and everyone pays for it. Human relationships break down.

Leisure is valuable. Leisure time is time free from work and other obligations, available for pursuits freely decided upon by the individual. Leisure activities have psychological and physical benefits for farm family members. It affects personal well-being, job performance and relationships with family members and employees.

Leisure contributes to mental health and life satisfaction. Leisure brings benefits of autonomy, creativity, novelty, vitality and meaning to life outside of work and love. Other benefits of using leisure time constructively include the ability to cope with unforeseen disability and to prepare for retirement.

Farm women often see the importance of leisure in family life - for themselves, for their children and for their husbands. Many farmers don't value leisure and focus their energies almost entirely on their work. They ignore the needs of the family in the process. The debate about leisure is a common source for conflict in farm couples. It is a matter of priority and attitude.

Lack of leisure is one main reason young people turn their backs on family farming and choose other professions in life. Resentment builds up about the long hours, great risks and lack of financial rewards. The workaholic lifestyle coupled with stress and lack of rewards makes them pessimistic and wary about farming.

Farmers and leisure. Some farmers build leisure into their lives. Their lives have balance. They have fun. They choose to do other things in their lives besides work.

They attend church activities, volunteer for organizations, participate in 4-H, attend school functions and sporting events, have hobbies and enjoy softball and other sports. They watch television and other entertainment, go out to eat, go to cultural events, family and community celebrations. They travel and take vacations. Some activities are on the farm. Others take planning and coordination for farmers to get away from the farm.

What work you do makes a difference. Dairy farmers are tied to their operations. Grain farmers have significant "downtime" within the framework of seasonal work demands. Livestock keeps people close to home. Family operations have the luxury of having family members to cover for them. Off-farm work adds extra demands, scheduling problems and reduces time for leisure.

How farmers can plan leisure time into their life. David Kohl has some good ideas.

He feels that small business owners get so caught up in their business that they don't set time priorities. They get caught up in minor decisions and give them equal weight with major ones. He feels business owners need to surround themselves with good people who can share the load and responsibility.

"You surround yourself with the best people you can - the lawyer, banker, accountant, financial counselor, employees," Kohl says. "You give them guidance, you get out of the way."

Kohl feels it is the end product that counts. Farmers need to move from being technicians to being managers of people, things and supplies. It is a tough transition and requires letting go of details and having trust in others.

Good communication also prevents burnout. In a complex operation with multiple decision-makers, a breakdown in communication can blow an operation apart. An outside facilitator can be helpful in finding common ground and meshing goals.

"Very few decisions are fatal," says Kohl. "It is the guerrilla warfare - the bickering over the decisions - that will do it. You get into guerrilla warfare and it takes all your energy and time and burns them up. Time is the most precious commodity on commercial farms. Guerrilla warfare will sink an average farm or make an excellent farm average." Kohl feels a son should work for someone else for at least five years before joining a family operation.

Another management strategy Kohl suggests is to keep overhead low for flexibility and maintain a balance between simplicity and technology. There is a time and place for cutting back, farming at a comfortable scale and still be competitive. Farmers need to fit their farming goals into their larger personal and family goals. The dog needs to wag the tail and not the tail wag the dog.

Kohl suggests farmers allow for a 25 percent increase in time allotment for every new enterprise or project they start. Farmers need to learn to say no and limit their off-farm involvements to 500 hours a year. Many farmers burnout between 45 and 60 because of stress and long work hours.

Now that my column is done, it is time to let go, kick back, and get wild and crazy. Well, maybe not quite, but it was fun thinking about it.