Although mental health is currently a prominent concern for many employers, it might still be surprising to hear that the agricultural industry is facing its own mental health crisis. A recent survey found that 88% of farmers under 40 years old believe that poor mental health is the industry's biggest danger.

Factors at Play

When you consider the factors at play for farmers every year, it shouldn't really be so surprising. There are often long working hours and a blurred line between home and work life, concerns over poor weather and seasonal demands, feelings of isolation and loneliness, the ever-present physical dangers of agricultural work and of course more recently, the impact of Brexit and COVID-19. Agriculture remains one of the highest risk industries for fatal workplace accidents, and sadly, also has a high level of suicide.

To help tackle the problem, the HSE has announced its support for campaigns which focus on prevention and early identification of the mental health risks facing those living and working in in the U.K agricultural sector. Examples of these campaigns include "Mind Your Head" launched by the Farm Safety Foundation to raise awareness of the importance of mental health and wellbeing as a priority. The NFUS have also launched the #NFUSHereForYou health and wellbeing hub, signposting various organisations which can help with mental health concerns.

Further conversations are being had in UK farming communities about promoting mental health and wellbeing and how that might be done – including raising awareness and support targeted specifically to the sector, increasing mental health literacy and the creation of outreach programmes. Utilising the strong and established networks in the farming community, which would mirror approaches used in Australia and New Zealand, could help to address the issue, and encourage people to seek and accept help.

A Generational Shift

It is interesting that the survey was conducted among the next generation of farmers – the under 40s. It highlights, in farming as in other areas, a generational shift towards openly acknowledging and sharing mental health concerns, where traditionally that might not have been the case. Indeed, the HSE reported that 89% of young farmers believe that talking about the issue will break down the current stigma.

The Impact of COVID-19

As with many other industries, the pandemic has resulted in a tough year for people carrying out all sorts of roles in the agricultural industry. Fluctuating demands may be more familiar to farmers used to seasonal work than to those working in other sectors, but the uncertainty and instability generated by the pandemic is well beyond that experienced in normal conditions. Rapid restructuring of the supply chain led to acute issues for farmers which can impact on mental health.

Where other workers have the opportunity of taking sick leave for work-related stress, or for illnesses (for instance, if they have contracted coronavirus) often the pressures of agricultural life don't allow for farmers to take much-needed time off.

One positive seen to come out of the pandemic is that employers in many sectors now have what is essentially a "blank canvas" from which to start again and break from traditional practices and beliefs. Agriculture has not been party to all of the huge shifts in working environment and practices enforced by COVID-19 restrictions, with on farm work necessarily continuing throughout the pandemic. Nonetheless, there is an opportunity for the sector to capitalise on this new era, with a willingness to discuss mental health, and make use of the support and resources out there, with a view to reversing the sad statistics that currently dog the sector.