Most of my first six years of life were spent on my grandparents’ dairy farm. Thereafter, the remainder of my childhood revolved around the rhythms of my parents’ farm where we had 2,000 chickens (the egg business), 75–150 head of Hereford cattle, two or three horses, and assorted cats and dogs. I mention this as we begin our month-long focus on mental health and work-related stress because many articles on this topic refer to the importance of work-life balance. We didn’t really know what that was when I was a child.
Work-life balance generally refers to having some sort of equilibrium between the amount of time one spends at work and time spent at home and/or in leisure activities. If that’s what it takes to reduce work-related stress, then I’m pretty certain that farmers must be some of the most stressed human beings on the face of the planet. And yet, I don’t recall much stress or stress-related behavior from my childhood.
There is no such thing as a clear separation between work and play on a farm. Livestock must be fed, cows milked, and eggs gathered every single day—often twice a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. If you’re not feeling well, if you’re tired, if you’re celebrating a birthday or grieving the loss of a loved one, these activities must still occur. In some rare instances close friends and family can help, but much of the time, it’s up to the farmer and his family.
How then, is it possible that farmers and their families are not more prone to stress-related mental health concerns than others in time-intensive occupations? What might we learn from a mid-century farmer of the 1900s that could help with work-related stress today? Certainly times have changed, but what takeaways are relevant?
Here are three things we can learn from farmers that may have a big impact on how we cope with work-related stress: outdoor time, social support and work engagement.
The nature of a farmer’s work with crops and/or livestock of some sort requires him to spend a considerable portion of most days outside. Even with modern conveniences, e.g. air-conditioned tractors, the work is often tediously long and physically demanding. This puts farmers at greater risk for skin cancer, particularly if they don’t dress appropriately, but it also gives them the advantage of getting more daylight—an important contributor to overall health and well-being. In fact, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a subtype of major depression that occurs when people get less sunlight, e.g. in the late fall and winter. It especially affects those who work indoors and venture out little in the colder seasons of the year.
How much sun can help reverse the effects of SAD? It doesn’t take a lot. As little as two hours of exposure to the sun every week can contribute to better health outcomes. Studies have found that exposure to the outdoors can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and asthma hospitalizations. We don’t know exactly how it all works, but it’s possibly related to an enhanced immune function and vitamin D production that are also associated with time spent outdoors (Environmental Health Perspective. 2008 Apr; 116(4): A160–A167).
And since we’re focusing on mental health here, spending time outside is also very good for your brain. Studies tell us that those who spend time in nature have better cognitive function, a decrease in stress and a boost in happiness—all of which are essential for maintaining good mental health and fighting depression and anxiety (Environmental Health. 2009; 8:34).
We all worked hard on the farm where I grew up, but we also played. We had strong connections with families in the church we attended every week. My father played on a men’s softball league; my mother was involved in a women’s group through church. Once a month my parents played cards with other couples and also attended square dances. My brother, sister and I were active in 4-H where we interacted regularly with other kids and their families. In short, we were not isolated. We may have been six miles south of town on a county road, but we all knew we were part of a bigger community—one where people worked together to make things better for themselves and their families.
Having a strong safety net of people to rely on when work is stressful is important. Talking to an understanding spouse, partner or friend can reduce stress hormones. Knowing you are not alone, that there are others who understand and care about you, goes a long way to helping us weather difficult times and circumstances.
Engagement with Work
As indicated above, we moved to a farm of our own the summer of my sixth birthday. With that move, my father started a job “in town” so that he could subsidize his real passion: farming. He worked 40 hours a week at the U.S. Geological Survey making maps and then came home to do work on the farm, the thing he really loved. This meant using vacation days to make hay in the summer and counting on my mother and us kids to pick up some of the slack at home. It entailed cold trips to the barn on late wintry nights when cows were calving and construction projects to improve the property. If you asked my father about “work-life balance,” I think he would have laughed. He loved the work he did, especially on the farm, so it was not a burden, stressor or inconvenience. It was something his job in town enabled him to do, and he did it with passion and persistence.
Did I mention that he had many “inventions” all over our farm—unique gate latches, helpful machinery, a filtration system he built for the in-ground pool he constructed himself? An avid life-long learner, he enjoyed his work, paid or unpaid, and included our family in his pursuits. We learned a lot from him.
As we launch a new topic series this month of August when the activity level in most homes is heating up with a return to school, here are a few takeaways I hope will be helpful in managing new stressors:
1. Go outside almost every day for a minimum of half an hour if possible. Aim for getting at least two hours outdoors/week.
2. Make time for family and friends. It’s easy to think we don’t have time, but the support of good relationships can greatly reduce work-related stress.
3. If possible, love what you do. Or, love that what you do makes other important pursuits possible.
Of course some work environments are more stressful than others. Some family situations are more complex and complicated, but all contribute to one’s overall life satisfaction and feeling of well-being. Stay tuned this month as we continue to talk about practical ways to manage work-related stress.
Dr. Jennifer L. Baker is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in marriage and family therapy. She is also the Founder and Director of Good Dads. She can be reached for question or comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.