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Beating burnout

No one is immune, so it’s smart to know if you’re showing these symptoms of burnout. For most of us, it’s the best way to avoid the trap

Do you feel exhausted no matter how much sleep you get? Do you feel mentally drained, or do you lack energy or feel like you’re not really accomplishing anything? All of these symptoms can point to burnout, says Dr. Arla Day, a professor in occupational health at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. In a 2016 online survey of 1,100 farmers by the University of Guelph’s Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton, about 40 per cent reported feeling high levels of emotional exhaustion and cynicism, which are also symptom.

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Farmer in field
Hand going through the field

Although burnout isn’t a medical diagnosis, if left untreated it can lead to depression and other health problems.

Burnout not only has an impact on your work, it can also seep into your home and family life. “It eats into everything else you are doing,” says Day.

People who are experiencing burnout may not initially recognize it. Often, instead, it’s a family member who will point it out and tell the affected individual they need to get help, says Day.

“It’s a prolonged response,” she explains. “The person may not even realize what’s going on at first.”

Getting at the cause

While having too much to do and never getting a break are pieces of the puzzle, there is more to it, explains Day.

Lacking control over things like crop prices and weather can contribute, as Day knows from growing up on a farm. “You work really hard and do everything right and you can still suffer a setback. That’s a setup for burnout,” she says.

Sometimes farmers are prone to thinking that if they just work harder they can lift themselves out of burnout. But that doesn’t always work, says Day. “It’s important to understand the difference between what you have control over and what you don’t.”

Working in isolation is another risk factor, says Day. With bigger farms and shrinking rural populations, more farmers are spending a lot of time working on their own and there isn’t as much support as there once was in farming.

If your work doesn’t align with your values, that can be another risk factor. If farming isn’t a good fit for you, then it can actually tip the scales towards burnout.

Day and her colleagues run a coaching clinic to help clients who are at risk of burnout. First, they encourage their clients to practise self-care.

Self-care isn’t selfish, says Day. “If you’re not on top of your game, you can’t help others,” she says. Many people are too hard on themselves and set the standards for themselves too high. “They need to practice self-compassion.”

Another problem is that people have a false expectation that they should be happy all the time. Day blames the field of positive psychology, a branch of psychology that emphasizes that people can choose to be happy. “We’ve got people feeling stressed about feeling stressed. It isn’t always possible to choose to be happy. It’s okay to not feel okay,” she says.

In fact, if you give yourself that permission, you may actually find you feel better.

Not always perfect

Based on Day’s research, it makes more sense to start by anticipating that things may sometimes go wrong. Then, put a support system in place to help weather the storms.

While some people are naturally more resilient than others, the good news is that we can all develop these skills with practice.

Dr. Michael Leiter, a professor of organizational psychology at Deakin University in Australia and author of the 2005 book, Banishing Burnout: Six Strategies for Improving Your Relationship with Work, says the key is reflecting deeply on how you want to work in terms of pace, intensity, control, etc.

“It often means improving how you share the load with others,” Leiter says.

Individuals running their own operations need to learn and respect their capacity to maintain their pace over the long haul, he adds. That may require moderating your ambitions, hopes and aspirations if the pace seems too grueling.

Patricia Katz, a well-being strategist in Saskatoon, says making an investment in your well-being will pay off. She suggests trying to eat well and to get enough sleep and exercise before the busy season begins so you go into it in good shape.

Then, during the busy season, catch a 15-minute nap, get off the tractor and walk around for a few minutes, make a phone call to a friend to share a laugh.

We suffer from burnout because we override our body’s signals to eat, sleep, etc., and we get disconnected from our relationships, says Katz. “Don’t cast time for friends aside; that doesn’t make sense. Look for small ways to maintain connection.”

After both she and her husband experienced mental health challenges, Lesley Kelly, who farms with her husband, father, and brother in Watrous, Sask., says they now make mental health a priority on the farm. “It’s the first thing on the agenda,” she says. “This creates an open environment on the farm where people come first.”

“We have a policy of stopping for supper so parents can spend time with their kids,” says Kelly.

And when the busy season is over, they take time away from the farm to rejuvenate.

To create a more supportive culture in agriculture, Kelly co-founded Do More Ag, a non-profit organization that “champions mental well-being from inside the industry and breaks the stigma that prevents farmers from reaching out for help.”

Give yourself permission to scale back or to ask for help from friends and family. That’s the strength of rural communities, says Day, adding that others don’t need to wait to be asked directly. “As a community they can chip in.”

“While reaching out to professionals who can help can be scary, it’s not only okay, it’s a really great thing. Anything that helps you do your job better is more than okay,” says Day.

Katz goes even further. “People are often quick to help others when they need it but find it hard to accept help. You’re shortchanging others if you don’t allow them to extend their support.”


The 3 Ps of pessimism

Avoiding the “3 Ps of pessimism” can help us be more resilient, says Saskatoon-based wellness strategist Patricia Katz. The 3 Ps refers to how we interpret negative events in our lives, with a system first described by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman in his book Learned Optimism: How to Change your Mind and Your Life.

The first P stands for personalization and refers to blaming yourself when things go wrong, even for things that are not under your control.

The second P stands for permanence, that is, thinking a bad situation will last forever. Those who think a setback is temporary are better able to accept it and adapt.

The third P is pervasiveness, meaning you think the bad situation applies across all areas of your life instead of the one area that is affected.

Patricia Katz has some advice for overriding the 3 Ps of pessimism. Challenge your thinking. Is it really about you? Be more appreciative of what is good in your life. Savour the positive experiences, and really take note of them so you can draw on these good memories when the going gets tough.

(More resources at www.domore.ag/resources).

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