Helping your farm employees manage mental health

  • 3 min read

Anyone can struggle with mental health issues – including farm employees. As farm operators and managers, supporting staff through tough times can have a positive effect for the employee, as well as the business. 

Even as the world learns to manage the stress and anxiety associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a place for farm management to offer support to employees.

Asking is tough – but you can do it

Adelle Stewart is executive director of Do More Ag, a national charity advocating and offering resources focused on mental health for Canada’s agriculture sector.

Decreased employee performance may be a sign of mental health struggles.

She says a decrease in employee performance can be a sign of mental health struggles – or another issue – and farm operators can open the conversation by using the “rule-out rule.” That means ruling out whether the employee is suffering psychologically before attempting to correct performance through other means.

“From a high level, have a fact-based conversation,” Stewart says. “Address concerns and let them know you can try and help if there is an issue.”

She adds, accessing medical resources is a personal decision on the part of anyone struggling with mental health issues. 

“It’s not up to employers to direct medical care. Don’t say ‘you should...’ Just ask if you can help and point them in the direction of resources. It could be as simple as pointing towards Do More Ag’s website.”

Proactive action makes good business sense

Anne, a grain farmer and beef rancher in Saskatchewan, has experience with employees struggling with mental health matters. To protect the privacy of her employees, she asked that her full name not be used.

She says while broaching the subject of mental health as an employer can be difficult and intimidating, doing so – and taking the time to listen if employees try to communicate first – has been very helpful on her farm. But as a farm operator, she feels like she’s blazing a trail.

“This conversation is very new to us,” Anne says. “Not everyone on our farm management team is comfortable talking about it.”

She adds that understanding how employee mental health affects the business itself is effective in highlighting the need to help. 

“I feel like many farmers are still focused on the day-to-day tasks,” she says. “You have to convince farmers this is something to invest their time in.”

It’s OK to feel uncomfortable

Stewart acknowledges even asking an employee about their mental well-being can be very stressful for some farmers. She reiterates that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable. Prepare for the conversation by considering your own individual boundaries, she says.

Stewart says Do More Ag offers workshops focused specifically on helping farmers prepare and start conversations with their own comfort boundaries in mind, as well as addressing elements of self-care. Stewart adds that self-care includes training farmers to have self-forgiveness if they don’t get the first conversation right.

“It’s knowing you’re someone that isn’t alone if you’re feeling off about having that conversation for the first time,” she says. “Farmers need to give themselves forgiveness as well.”

The complexities of COVID-19 can make mental health matters more acute, but Stewart says the fundamental approaches to mental health is the same. The virus is just another layer to the same problem.

“At the core of what we stand for, COVID-19 emphasizes the importance of it, but doesn’t change our tactics," Stewart says.

Bottom Line

A decrease in employee production can have a major impact on a farm operation, but it can also be a sign of a staff member dealing with mental health issues. Check-in with employees, address concerns and let them know there is support by pointing them towards mental health resources like Do More Ag. At the same time, farm managers should recognize their own boundaries with having difficult conversations and know that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable. 

Article by: Matt McIntosh