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5 ways to deal with the invisible workload on the farm

4 min read

Remembering the grocery list, coordinating the babysitter, and booking the doctor’s appointment aren’t typical farm chores, but every farm family needs somebody to take on these and many more day-to-day duties. 

These tasks are examples of invisible work, a term created by sociologist Arlene Kaplan Daniels to define unpaid and often unacknowledged labour in home management. These responsibilities include cooking, cleaning, caregiving, and the mental load of planning and organizing daily life. 

Women historically handle the bulk of this work, and it often falls on their shoulders, sometimes due to gender-based expectations. Mothers, including those on the farm, spend significant time and energy thinking about their family's needs and doing the physical labour involved in childcare. Add on- and off-farm jobs to invisible work, and the general inequality can lead to feeling overwhelmed and burnt out.  

Invisible work can add to individuals' physical and mental stress.“Invisible work can add to the physical and mental stress of individuals,” says Bethany Parkinson, manager of psychological support and education for Agriculture Wellness Ontario at the Canadian Mental Health Association. “And in agriculture, every farm family already has more stressful times, like planting and harvesting, and stressors that come up, such as an issue with animal health.” 

To address invisible work and create a balance between wellness, family demands and farm business needs, consider these five tips: 

1. Establish healthy routines  

Basic self-care, such as eating well, getting enough sleep, and maintaining personal hygiene, improves mental health and well-being. No matter what type of workload you experience, Parkinson explains that consciously making wellness a priority and sticking to a routine is key to staying healthy.   

“As humans, we rely on a daily schedule or routine to keep us well,” she says. “Children thrive off of routine, so when they see their parents modelling this behaviour, it can help their mental wellbeing too.” 

 2. Communicate openly 

For Lesley Kelly, who farms with her brother and husband in Saskatchewan, regular communication is vital to addressing visible and invisible work and sharing the workload. 

As a result of good communication, Kelly and her husband, Matt, have developed a year-round routine that aims to balance farm work, off-farm work and their family.  

Kelly is responsible for managing the farm’s financial records, marketing and human resources, which she can do remotely using her phone and laptop. This flexibility allows her to travel across North America for speaking engagements in the winter months. At the same time, Matt carries most of the invisible workload associated with their home and raising their two sons.  

“And then, during busy times on the farm, we switch,” she explains. “I turn off my speaking calendar to be there and take the lead at home, with his support.” 

The farm partners find it beneficial to use the social media messaging platform WhatsApp to communicate throughout the day and book a weekly meeting to review priority jobs and make plans.   

3. Use organizational tools 

“One of the things that helps me stay sane with the mental workload is using Trello,” says Kelly, explaining that the digital tool is like a virtual whiteboard with lists of sticky notes that others can access.  

She uses Trello for everything on the farm, extracurricular sports schedules for her sons, and even their favourite field meals.  

“I list all of the recipes we like and the ingredients, so when it comes time to make field meals, I don’t even have to think about it,” Kelly says.  

When she knows her sports mom's schedule won’t allow her to deliver as many meals, as usual, to farm crews during busy times of the year, she uses her list to make individual freezer meals ahead of time and purchases portable food warmers for the farm team. 

4. Connect with peers 

Building a support network can help you manage invisible work, but sometimes, it takes reaching out to start the conversation.  

“Connection is so much greater and more impactful than comparison,” Parkinson says. “If you notice that the neighbour's farm, play hockey and do 4-H, reach out to the mom for tips on how they do it instead of thinking about how you should be doing what they're doing but don’t have the time.”   

Kelly made valuable connections through a formal peer group. While the group focuses on business planning and other farm management topics, it also discusses mental health and family and shares its members' experiences to help each other.  

5. Ask for help 

Admitting you need help can be difficult, but there is no shame in reaching out to your network for support or hiring help for tasks such as cleaning or childcare.  

If the workload is overwhelming, access these mental health resources or visit Do More Agriculture, an initiative Kelly co-founded in 2017.  

Article by: Rebecca Hannam

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