Managing Fatigue on Your Farm

You may be overworked, and you could use more sleep and better rest

By Stacy Berry

Many farmers define fatigue as simply being very tired. That definition isn’t wrong – but it is incomplete.

A part of fatigue is exhaustion from lack sleep, but Jody Wacowich, executive director of AgSafe Alberta, reminds us that fatigue can “also be that you are overworked.”

Why care about being tired or overworked? Chronic fatigue has a plethora of physical health risks – obesity, cancer, stroke, and cardiovascular issues to name a few.

Besides the hazards to your personal health, not managing fatigue in a workplace can put others at risk.

Susan Sawatzky of In-Scope Solutions, a fatigue management company, defines fatigue as “a state of impairment that can cause issues related to health and safety.”

“Statistics show that fatigue can be a larger impairment than being drunk. But it seems like no one bats an eye driving or working exhausted,” says Sawatzky.

Studies indicate that a person who has remained awake for 21 hours straight is equally impaired to someone with a blood alcohol of 0.08, which is the legal level of impairment.

“Unlike drugs and alcohol, there are no biological markers that can be tested (to indicate impairment). This makes it more difficult to measure and enforce,” says Sawatzky.

Even though it’s difficult to measure, the importance of managing fatigue is clear. According to the National Safety Council, 13 per cent of all workplace incidents have fatigue as a contributing factor.

An employer is estimated to lose between $1,200 and $3,100 annually due to absenteeism and reduced productivity from fatigue. This number doesn't even include losses related to health and safety. Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Canada estimates that, nationwide, fatigue costs Canadian employers more that $330 billion annually.

Sawatzky is well aware of the farming lifestyle, having lived in rural areas and having family who farm. She notes “those long hours often push farmers outside of their natural circadian rhythm, causing fatigue. And there are farmers who work off farm, too, so getting proper sleep can be nearly impossible.”

Wacowich also understands the farming schedule. “I have worked the hours required to get a job done on the farm. I have also waited for someone to come home from those long hours who had not taken the time to rest. We just want to make sure that everyone makes it home to their family at the end of the day.”

Unfortunately, the demands of the job at certain times of year make it difficult to prioritize sleep, as well. It doesn’t help that many farmers “are proud to squeeze work out of every hour of the day. Working hard and being tired can seem like points of pride,” explains Wacowich.

Fatigue has obvious physical effects, but it can also have mental and emotional impacts.

Mark Marcynuk, of Dynamite Coaching, posits “physical and mental fatigue can lead to feeling stressed and cause us to react with more of a fight or flight response. This means you are not planning ahead; you are purely responding to what’s in front of you, right now.

“When fatigued, people respond differently. Some get grouchy, some get withdrawn, others get vulgar or aggressive,” says Marcynuk.

Farming is one of those special occupations where you are often working with friends and family members, and you live where you work. This means that strained conversations can lead to strained relationships, with little or no time to cool off.

Poor communication and increased conflict can be associated with fatigue, but there are other mental health impacts that can follow. Megz Reynolds, executive director with the Do More Agriculture Foundation, says “fatigue and mental health impact each other. When you are fatigued, it can negatively influence your mental health. If you are experiencing poor mental health, that can result in fatigue.”

Reynolds has first-hand experience with the challenges of farming, having been a grain farmer herself. “When you’re in busy season, and running on little to no sleep, and you have lots on your mind, you just don’t have the time for your mind and body to recover at night.”

mental health continuum model

    The Do More Foundation

Mental health is measured on a continuum, from green (good) to red (bad), as indicated in the graphic above.

“Farmers are often functioning in the yellow or orange phases. Symptoms of mental health issues, like bad tempers, are so commonplace that they are viewed as personality traits and not the red flags that they are,” says Reynolds.

Farmers are “eternal optimists,” Reynolds further explains. “They are always planning for next year. When traumatic events like drought, disease, or trade disputes happen, you don’t take the time to actually process what happened, because you are already looking to the next year.”

So what can you do to manage fatigue?

The only true cure for fatigue is good quality and quantity of sleep. And the magic number is around eight hours.

Sleep comes in four stages. The first half of the night is light sleep, stage 1 and 2. The second half of the night is spent in deep sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. These stages are essential for clearing brain toxins and processing memories. Therefore, if you are only sleeping four to six hours, you might feel refreshed, but you are not providing your body enough time to cycle properly. It could be comparable to not allowing the glow plugs on a diesel to warm up prior to starting it. You can do it a few times, but you won’t get away with it for long before you wreck your starter.

Working some long hours during harvest? In-Scope Solutions has one amazing tip to stretch your time awake. Try some caffeine (coffee, cola, etc.), and then in the 20 minutes it takes the caffeine to get into your system, take a short nap. When you wake up you will have both the caffeine and the nap helping you to stay alert a little longer. It is important to remember, however, that the effects are only temporary, as in the end, only a full night of sleep can help cure fatigue.

Research from National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has found that 26 minutes is the perfect nap time. You can take a “26-minute NASA nap” to restore alertness and mental function. More modern research notes 10 to 30 minutes can be optimal for a short nap. What's more, even if you don't sleep, just resting your eyes and mind can help to restore you somewhat.

Do you do everything right, and you’re still exhausted and reactionary?

That could be because there are other types of rest that a person needs besides just sleep, such as sensory or emotional rest.

Marcynuk suggests, “take a walk, write in a journal, have a snack or drink something. Change the scenery, and find your outlet. Then you can come back to the situation with a clearer mindset.”

Reynolds recommends further, “in farming, so much is out of your control. Take a moment and focus on the little things that you can control. Even in the busy seasons, it’s important to hit pause, whether that’s watching the sunrise, or shutting down at a mealtime to eat with your family, or purposely disconnecting from your phone before bed.”

Sawatzky reminds farmers that when she talks about managing fatigue, it’s not trying to force farming to run from 9-to-5, because that won’t happen.

“Managing fatigue means recognizing risks and managing them accordingly. When the risks are high, create safe systems for your workers. For example, build a check-in system for those working long or odd hours, to ensure they are good to operate. If not, allow time for a short rest if needed.” In the context of a workplace, though, these ideas may require an attitude shift since it permits – and sometimes encourages – ‘sleeping on the job.’

Wacowich urges this change in attitude.

“Staying up all hours and working all day and night is not something we should be bragging about.”

There needs to be a “shift in mentality – let’s turn it around! Instead of bragging about how late you worked last night and still woke up for the early shift, ask: could we have managed it better?”

farming leaning on truck
    Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan photo

Wacowich has a seemingly endless supply of Twitter screenshots of producers lamenting wrecked fences and crashed machinery from falling asleep at the wheel. They are always thankful to survive these incidents. “Many farmers claim: ‘I don’t have time for safety.’ However, they don’t realize what the cost can be if they don’t take the time to give themselves or a farmhand a break, or just to take an early evening.”

Unfortunately, farmers’ mental health is still taking a toll, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic drags on.

According to the 2021 University of Guelph study on farmer mental health, 1 in 4 Canadian farmers felt that their life was not worth living, wished they were dead, or thought of taking their own life in the past 12 months.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, please reach out. Online, www.domore.ag has a webpage dedicated to resources available per province and will use your location to link you to resources. If you don’t feel ready to accept professional help, there is a plethora of blog posts with tips and tricks for improving your mental health. Remember, you are not alone.

Reynolds says “we are finally talking about mental health in agriculture and its impacts on farmers. However we still have such a long way to go to change the culture to one where all are supported and empowered to take care of their mental well-being and that is seen as important as the economics of the farm.”

Wacowich agrees. “The shift is happening as farms are changing hands, but hopefully all farmers can see the benefit of taking a little time to rest. If you don’t get it done today, it will still be there tomorrow, and you can tackle it when well-rested.” BF

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