Hard work and long hours are taking their toll on British farmers and their families, who are looking for ways to improve their work-life balance, a major Farmers Weekly survey reveals.
On average farmers work a 65-hour week – far exceeding the UK national average of 37 hours. Some growers and livestock producers work in excess of 100 hours, according to the study – with many rarely taking a day off, let alone an annual holiday.
Carried out in association with Bayer and Isuzu, the survey is being published this autumn to mark the start of a Farmers Weekly campaign called Fit2Farm – highlighting the importance of healthy farmers to healthy farm businesses.
Over the coming months we will show ways that farmers can maintain and enhance their physical health and mental wellbeing – achieving a better balance between work, outside interests and time spent with family and friends – and how that can benefit the farm business.
The Fit2Farm campaign has its roots in a farm health forum hosted by the Worshipful Company of Farmers (WCF). Held last year, the event brought together farm leaders, rural charities and health experts to highlight the benefits of a healthy lifestyle for farmers, their families and businesses.
We have signed up Welsh rugby international Dan Lydiate as an ambassador and public face of the Fit2Farm campaign. A beef and sheep producer as well as a 2013 British and Irish Lion, he is well aware of the challenges faced by farmers.
Farm charities are supporting the Fit2Farm campaign. As well as WCF, Farmers Weekly has joined forces with the Farming Community Network and the Farm Safety Foundation as charity partners. Industry leaders are also lending their support.
NFU vice-president Stuart Roberts said: “The old ‘farming isn’t a job, it’s a way of life’ stuff is too often an excuse for accepting conditions and work arrangements no other industry would accept. For me, holidays with the family are critically important.”
Fit2Farm survey results
More than 700 farmers, farm managers and workers responded to the Fit2Farm survey, which was conducted during August and September. The results paint a stark picture of what many people outside agriculture often view as an idyllic rural lifestyle.
Creators of stress are most likely to be centred on time, health, workload and relationships, the survey reveals. Cashflow problems, too much work, too little time and feeling unable to leave the farm to be with family and friends were all mentioned by respondents.
The survey confirms that farmers are among the UK’s hardest workers.
- Almost half of respondents said they were able to take a regular day off only once or twice a month – with a quarter saying they managed to do so only once or twice a year.
- Almost all UK workers are entitled to 28 days paid holiday each year, including bank holidays. But those in agriculture take much less paid annual leave – just 11 days on average. One in 10 takes no holiday days at all throughout the year.
- Just two-thirds of respondents said they had taken a holiday or short break within the past 12 months. But this was likely to be a short break rather than a full week or more, with one third of respondents saying it was less than three nights away.
Even when farmers do manage to get off the farm, their outside interests are likely to be work-related.
- Nine out of 10 survey respondents participate in non-farming activities – but they are often likely to be farm discussion groups (19%) and other farm networks (18%).
- Overall, respondents feel more positive about their physical health than their mental wellbeing.
- Almost two thirds (64%) believe they are in good shape physically, but the number is lower (55%) when it comes to how they feel mentally.
- Some 45% of farmers say they never exercise outside work – although sport frequently provides a welcome break from farm life for those who do.
- In line with that, 46% of respondents belong to a local sports club or gym. Rugby is the most popular sport among farmers, with 13% of respondents belonging to their local club, followed by cricket (5%) and football (5%).
- One in 10 survey respondents said their daily work was limited by a long-term illness, health problem or disability.
- One in four (27%) have had no medical check-up in the past year. Those who have are more likely to visit the dentist (81%) than the doctor (50%).
- One in 10 respondents said they had been injured in a farm accident within the past 12 months, with a further 6% saying they had been involved in a work-related accident but had managed to escape uninjured.
Stress and worry blamed for sleepless nights
Getting the right amount of sleep is a major challenge for farmers. Two-thirds of respondents (68%) said they didn’t always get enough sleep, with more than a quarter (28%) saying they had trouble sleeping all or most of the time.
Survey analyst Heather Macleod, who conducted the Farmers Weekly survey, said: “Respondents are building a sleep debt by sleeping around 6.5 hours a night but needing a full eight hours to get a good night’s rest.
“Some people might think cereal farmers work harder than livestock farmers but we found everyone is working hard across the board. There are a some small differences here and there but they are all within a couple of hours of each other on average.”
To help them sleep, respondents said they sometimes listened to music (30%) or had either a hot drink (26%) or alcohol (22%). A further 12% have taken medication – whether over the counter or prescribed by a medical professional.
Some 52% of all respondents said they enjoyed a drink – although not all to get to sleep. On average, drinkers consume 13 units of alcohol a week. But many drink much more than that.
Ms Macleod said: “Where people are drinking heavily, they are drinking really heavily. It suggests people are feeling really stressed and haven’t got the mechanisms for dealing with it – they haven’t got the support they need.”
Putting things right
Looking to the future, survey recipients say they would like to rebalance their lives so they are healthier, more active and have more time to spend with friends and family (see graph). And that is exactly what Fit2Farm hopes to help farmers achieve over the coming weeks and months.
Among other issues, farmers have asked for advice on balancing work and family, managing tiredness and fatigue, stress management, techniques to stop worrying, and ways to use time more effectively. All these topics will be covered, and more.
* Next week (5 October), we look at ways to improve your work-life balance.
Rugby international Dan Lydiate is Fit2Farm ambassador
Tough-tackling Welsh rugby international Dan Lydiate has joined the Farmers Weekly team as ambassador for the Fit2Farm campaign.
Farming has much in common with rugby, says the 30-year-old Ospreys flanker, whose family runs a sheep and beef farm near Llandrindod Wells. Over the coming weeks and months, he will share his insight and experience with readers.
“Health and wellbeing is a massive issue – not just in farming but in rugby too,” he says. “They are both macho industries where people don’t always want to talk about their feelings – or show any weakness by admitting they might be struggling.”
Capped 62 times for his country, Dan has seen more than his fair share of career-threatening injuries. They include a broken neck, anterior cruciate ligament damage and a bicep injury which left him sidelined for much of last season. But each time his has fought back to play again.
“Everyone puts a lot of effort into their work – but sometimes things happen that are out of your control,” he says. “Like this summer with the dry weather – you wonder if you have enough feed for the stock. It’s not only you thinking that, but farmers don’t always like to talk.”
“Farmers are probably the hardest workers I know. But if you work hard you’ve got to play hard too – you’ve got to enjoy things too. Otherwise you go through life and you will miss out on your kids growing up. You’ve got to make time for yourself.”
Case study: Champion shooter took up sport to get away
Yorkshire arable farmer Phil Rowbottom, 58, took up clay shooting to get away from the farm for a few hours – and ended up captaining his country at the sport.
“I’m one of those guys who can’t stay still for long if I can help it,” he says. “I can’t be doing with sitting about – I have to get on. I was always a sportsman – I played rugby until I got injured and then took up a different sport. I’ve been told I’m too competitive.”
Mr Rowbottom, who farms 134ha of wheat and rape on the outskirts of Wakefield, took up clay shooting 30 years ago after a club opened next door to the farm. He has since shot for England and Great Britain eight times, captaining his country in the USA in 2011.
Like many farmers, Mr Rowbottom works seven days a week. Something had to give, he says. “I should be ploughing today but I packed the plough in the shed. It will still be there tomorrow and the job will still get done. You have to enjoy life otherwise you don’t do yourself any good.”
Case study: Even a short break can be precious
Fifth-generation Herefordshire mixed farmer Richard Thomas, 39, can’t always take time off – but he always makes sure he takes an hour for lunch when he can.
Farming beef, sheep and cider apples at Risbury, near Leominster, Mr Thomas says: “You’ve got to put yourself top of the list some of the time. That doesn’t mean you have to forget about anybody else but you have to make time for yourself.
“To me, a break is having an hour for lunch and a proper meal. If something is going on, we still make sure we take a break – you can always stick an extra 10 minutes on the end of the working day or you can do it tomorrow.
“Everyone has something that makes them tick, whether it is going for a run, going to the pub or playing with the children. Otherwise you just get run down, and you don’t achieve what you want to achieve because you’re not in the right place in your head.”
Farmers Weekly has launched a new campaign to help farmers discover how they can improve their own health, wellbeing and work-life balance.
It’s all about making sure you are in top shape, physically and mentally to run your farm business.
We’ve been joined by business and charities to raise awareness for this campaign. Read about our sponsors below.
Read all of the articles in the Fit2Farm series
Your wellbeing is just as important to your farm’s future as looking after your land, crops and animals. Looking after yourself helps you be more productive and confidently face new challenges.
At Bayer, we have health and nutrition at our core, so we are delighted to support Fit2Farm.
Find out more at cropscience.bayer.co.uk/wellbeing
Isuzu are proud to support UK farmers of today and as the pick-up professionals we understand that having the right tools and equipment are vital elements to making the working day go that much easier.
That’s why with Isuzu, our pick-ups are strong, durable and built to go the distance, so you can focus the job in hand.
Find out more about the Isuzu D-Max range on our website
Our charity partners
Farming Community Network
The Farming Community Network (FCN) is a voluntary organisation and charity that supports farmers and families within the farming community through difficult times.
FCN’s volunteers provide free, confidential, pastoral and practical support to anyone who seeks help, regardless of whether the issue is personal or business-related.
Helpline: 03000 111999
Helpline is open every day of the year from 7am to 11pm
Farm Safety Foundation
The Farm Safety Foundation is an award-winning charity raising awareness of farm safety among the next generation of farmers.
Through training and campaigns such as Farm Safety Week and Mind Your Head, the Foundation tackles the stigma around risk-taking and poor mental health, ensuring that that next generation of farmers is equipped with specific skills to live well and farm well.
Worshipful Company of Farmers
The complexity, risk and relentless uncertainty within agriculture today take a tremendous toll on all those who work in the industry; never before has resilience been so crucial.
Recognising this we are delighted to support this new initiative to promote good health and wellbeing. It’s a fresh approach and demonstrates that working together we are always stronger.