By Patrick Meagher
There has been a surge in focus on mental health and stress on the farm. But there seems to be more talk about the increasing problem than the problem itself.
One outcome rarely mentioned is burnout. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, reporter Jenny Rough says burnout is common, it’s everywhere and it’s often misdiagnosed.
Rough writes that a recent U.S. report declared physician burnout a public health crisis that was increasingly responsible for medical errors. Sound familiar? Planting and harvest seasons are always the most dangerous times of year on the farm. Some farmers will work 16-hour days to get that last job done. They might rush and skip a safety procedure or make a mistake. The result might be wasted seed but it could be much worse.
A 2016 University of Guelph study of 1,100 farmers found that 45 per cent could be suffering high stress, 58 per cent were classified with varying degrees of anxiety and 35 per cent could be suffering from depression. Wrote one farmer: “I have everything I dreamed of – love, family and a farm – and all I feel is overwhelmed, out of control and sad.”
An intense workload in the spring can makes things much worse. If there are crop farmers under stress now, how far from burnout will they be come mid-May?
But what is burnout? Are you on the road to it? And how do you turn things around? Rough writes that burnout is too often misunderstood. “Burnout is a term easily tossed around, the way somebody might claim to be starving when they’re simply hungry, or freezing when cold. That’s harmless if a person is describing a tired day or week. But somebody who is actually burned out should be prepared to take serious action because it’s a condition that needs attention.”
Burnout is when you have chronic stress that starts playing with your head and your body.
There are many possible symptoms. You might lose perspective, good judgment and optimism. You might discover you can’t make decisions or can’t make them as quickly and as confidently as you did before. Things look gloomy. Jobs appear much bigger than they are. You’re overwhelmed. You change from being a glass-is-half-full to a glass-is-almost-empty kind of guy. You have sudden outbursts of anger over little things. You’re exhausted. You get headaches or stomach aches.
Psychologist Sheryl Zieglar defines burnout as “chronic stress gone awry.”
According to the U.S. Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), a survey designed to measure employee burnout, the following three symptoms need to be present:
1. Emotional exhaustion: You’re always tired. You even wake up tired. Sometimes taking a week off might not be enough.
2. Cynicism: You find yourself increasingly in a bad mood, more angry, and this is not how you used to be.
3. Feeling ineffective: You lose confidence in your ability to make decisions and do a good job. And the harder you work the more incapable you feel.
Other symptoms can include being frequently sick, often with a cold, insomnia and a tendency to alleviate stress in unhealthy ways. This includes escapism with too much alcohol, online timewasting, as well as avoiding work and other people.
In a new book, “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle,” health educator Emily Nagoski and her sister Amelia Nagoski, a choral conductor hospitalized for burnout, help readers return to a balanced life.
“Everybody intuitively recognizes what burnout feels like in their bodies and their feelings and their thoughts,” Emily Nagoski says. “It’s like art: You know it when you see it.”
It’s worth noting that men and women experience burnouts differently. A study published in the peer-reviewed online journal BMC Public Health found that female physicians burn out from emotional exhaustion while males burn out with cynicism. They become pessimistic and lose interest and enjoyment in their work.
Burnout is caused by chronic stress, not stressors, the Nagoskis argue. Stressors are external things like to-do lists, financial problems or anxiety about the future. Some stress is good, like stress of a deadline to help you focus on getting the job done on time. Too much stress isn’t. Burnout “is the neurological and physiological shift that happens in your body when you encounter (stressors),” the Nagoskis write.
Perhaps, you’ve got too much to do in too little time and the light at the end of the tunnel is about four weeks away and you’re not sure you can make it. Suddenly you’re having a harder time breathing (you might be having a panic attack) or your head hurts again (your brain might be telling you to stop because it can’t process more information) or you feel paralyzed to act (again your body shouting at you to stop). If it’s a panic attack, you might need to go to a hospital or see your doctor.
There are numerous activities you can incorporate to avoid burnout. The more obvious ones include finding ways to disconnect from the pressure. Find a creative outlet, physical exercise (just 15 minutes a day can do wonders), restrict social media and limit internet scrolling to 10 minutes a day, go to bed earlier, get more sleep, cut back on activities on the calendar, create some quiet time and spend one-on-one time with your spouse or a friend. You need positive social interaction with people, not screens. None of this is revolutionary but burnout does require time to heal, the Nagoskis say.
Adding time to go for a quiet walk and allow yourself to daydream or converse with God might seem like adding more stress to a maxed-out day. But if you look at the alternative, which could include hospitalization, you might realize you can’t afford not to exercise or cut back on other activities. Sure, you’re probably the best guy for a job but delegate and lower your expectations of a job well done.
“Making space in our lives so we’re not so hurried and harried isn’t easy,” writes Rough. ”Preventing burnout requires hard decisions. Everyone has the same amount of time in a day. To rest, whether with a walk, an extra hour of sleep or a talk with a friend, means something else drops off the schedule. At first, you might panic that you’re not ‘accomplishing’ something. But before long, you may notice you’ve moved farther away from a breaking point. Your downward spiral will change directions.”