Tackling the problem of stress on farms

Farming is a stressful occupation. But how do you know if you or an employee is stressed what should you be doing about it?

Anne Davies, a partner in leading law firm Vizards Wyeth, addresses some questions about the health and safety consequences of stress. Visit the forums discussion for an opportunity to ask follow up questions or to seek advice on a related issue.

Isn’t stress part of every day life?

Yes, but it should not be. We should distinguish between working under pressure and stress. Stress is the consequence of too much pressure.

Whilst pressure can motivate people, stress can result in psychological injuries (nervous breakdowns), physical illnesses (heart attacks), and commercial accidents (often caused by silly mistakes).

Stress is an individual’s problem isn’t it?

Pressure affects individuals in different ways but farmers and the agricultural industry must recognise that it is a risk that can be assessed in the same way as any other risk.

A legal duty exists to look after employees, to identify risks and to either remove or reduce them. Failure to discharge this duty will make you vulnerable to a Health and Safety Executive prosecution or improvement/prohibition notices which can carry heavy fines.

Are there farmers at particular risk?

The HSE identifies all farming as stressful but the following groups suffer the most:

• Livestock farmers – Long hours, frequent isolation and an increased risk of injury

• Isolated farmers – Inability to discuss concerns with others

• Older farmers – Physical and mental exhaustion

• Owners of small farms – Unable to share duties

Stress also increases at certain times:

• Agricultural crisis – Foot-and -mouth and avian flu are prime examples

• Busy seasonal times – Tight deadlines and stretched resources

How can stress be controlled?

These following steps can help manage pressure and hopefully prevent stress occurring:

• Identify the hazards

  • Review demanding tasks – can they be performed more efficiently?
  • Encourage employees to express their views. They are often ‘closer to the coal face’

• Identify the people at risk

  • Informal and formal chats with workers will reveal problems. Carefully note who is suffering and any patterns related to each task
  • Low productivity and high employee turnover are indicators of stress

• Take action to reduce stress

  • Act on the patterns that emerge for example, reduce workloads or change methods
  • Being sociable and communicative offers employees the chance to relieve stress
  • Do not be afraid to ask for help from other farmers or industry experts they have probably dealt with the same problems.

• Do not rest on your laurels

  • Regularly review the risks and make changes as and when they are necessary.

That helps my employees – but what about me?

The law offers a framework to protect employees. The same legal framework does not protect the employer. But there is no reason not to apply the same principles to yourself as an employer.

Ensure that you do not overlook the pressures affecting your own work life. Each of the steps can and should be applied to your own workload. It may not be possible to take an objective stance so ask a senior employee or contact a trusted friend within the industry and ask if they will help you out.

Pressure from the top causes stress on those underneath. Only when you can say that you are managing your stress will you be able to effectively manage employees’ stress.

The most dramatic consequences of stress are apparent within the agriculture sector. Farmers and farm hands are twice as likely to take their own lives as workers in any other industry. There can be no doubt that stress is a key factor in this tragic statistic. The substantial economic cost of this risk is paralleled by a greater social cost.

Isolation is one of the factors that can contribute to stress. If you are feeling like you would talk through you problem with other farmers then why not take a look at our online discussion forums. It is a place to get advice and support, and have some fun. If you have any legal queries relating to this article please post them on the dedicated Vizards discussion thread.

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Anne Davies, a partner in leading law firm Vizards Wyeth, addresses some questions about the health and safety consequences of stress. Visit the forums discussion for an opportunity to ask follow up questions or to seek advice on a related issue. The information provided in this article is subject to Vizards Terms and Conditions.