Burnout: Fill your personal fueltank!

Every farmer knows a tractor burns fuel when used and makes sure to check the gauge every so often. No one wants to be left stranded at the side of the road or field. But if we don’t check, there’s always the warning light to remind us we’re running low. We know how to look after our tractors. Do we know how to look after ourselves?

Life on the farm can look idyllic, like this coffee break during haying season in the Swiss alps. But burnout is a very real issue for many farmers all over the world.

Burnout was the theme of a workshop I attended at the Strickhof Agriculture College in Wülflingen, Switzerland. It’s a common word in the working world. Swiss farmers aren’t exempt, and I don’t think Canadian farmers are either. The idyllic picture many urbanites have of the farm – a slower lifestyle, riding the range with the dog trotting alongside – is far from reality for most farmers all over the world. Increasing pressure from tight margins, heavier regulations, more paperwork, less personnel for more acres are taking their toll. One or both partners work off the farm. Relationships are more complex. Sometimes it all becomes too much. Even the smallest task feels too hard, we’re so tired we can hardly move, there’s no point to living anymore. Call it depression or burnout.

Why do we fill the tractor when it’s time but don’t heed the warning signs of our own bodies? We’ve been tired for a long time, we’re always irritated and uptight, we smoke or drink more, we lose interest in our work, our relationships, sex. It’s time to tank up! But we don’t – we don’t know how, or we don’t have time, or we’re ashamed to admit we need help. We don’t want to look like a wimp.

It takes a long time to recuperate from a real burnout. Two weeks at the Mexican Riviera isn’t going to do the trick. It can take years and often we never quite regain what was lost. A counsellor once told me it’s comparable to running a motor in the red. If you wait too long, the motor is never the same again.

It’s important to take breaks. Annual holidays are good, but better are daily little time-outs. “It’s better to take a mini holiday every day, than to long for the big ones,” Dr. Marianne Breu told us at the workshop. Take time for a cup of coffee out in the garden or an after lunch nap – especially during calving season! Go for a walk through the bush when the leaves are coming out. Do deep breathing and/or yoga and meditation exercises; draw, run, or do whatever relaxes you.

And please, go for help! Admitting he has depression is probably about as hard for a farmer as it is for an African to admit they have AIDS. Often both would rather die. At the workshop, Dr. Peter Strate said that people usually wait 10-15 years before they go for help, and by then they’ve often lost their job or families. Don’t wait that long – for your own sake and the sake of your families.

Watch that personal fuel gauge. Are you running low? If you’re not sure, ask your family. They might be quite happy to tell you! Don’t wait until you’re stranded at the side of the road, alone.

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