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Kick Off Your Boots and Stay a While
By: Sean Knurek & Eric Karbowski, MSU Extension - 11/18/2020

Farming doesn't stop at 5:00 p.m., but not being able to separate your work and personal life can increase stress and lead to physical and mental health issues. Taking time for yourself is crucial.

In December 2013, more than 1,600 farmers and ranchers self-reported how many hours they put in each day on farm-related work. Almost three-fourths of respondents stated that they work ten or more hours daily, while 17 percent of those responding stated that they work 15 hours or more each day.

Those working in a traditional office job with fixed hours have some built-in boundaries that separate work life and home life. Often, these off-the-farm professions don't come with unforeseen concerns like handling sick livestock, responding to unpredictable weather and fixing unexpected machinery breakdowns or maintaining a large property. Agriculture professionals, however, regularly encounter issues like these at all hours, which require immediate solutions. The stakes are high for those in agriculture--countless hours of work are necessary to create products that society needs to survive, whether it be crops, meat, fruit, vegetables, or dairy. These product yields are the primary source of income and livelihood for farm families. If yield is poor, the future outlook of the farm may be in jeopardy, which compounds the stress related to agricultural occupations.

Although the inherent challenges of farming are unique, it is important to remember that no matter your career path, stress will follow. According to the Cleveland Clinic, "Stress is a normal reaction the body has when changes occur. It can respond to these changes physically, mentally or emotionally." When it comes to stress, there are some important things to remember:

- What is stressful to one person may not be stressful to another. It is important to be self-aware so that you can identify when stress is starting to affect your day-to-day life.

- Stress is normal, and sometimes it is not a bad thing. Eustress is the type of stress which motivates us and keeps us productive and moving forward. Distress is what we normally think of as the stress that adds up and, over time, negatively affects us.

- A major stressor, regardless of your career, is time. Whether you work eight-hour days or you're working more than 15 hours daily, it is worth remembering that no matter how hard we may wish for it, there are only 24 hours in a day. What we choose to do with that time is just that, our choice.

A beneficial tip to anyone struggling with time management is to keep a running journal of activities completed along with the number of hours worked during a given time period. Simply, keep a notebook or jot in your smartphone what you have done during 20- to 30-minute blocks throughout the day. The time invested in this time journal will pay dividends later.

By logging work activity and time spent for a week, you are creating a baseline to compare with future weeks.

- You now have written down exactly what you have accomplished during your journaling period. Take care not to judge yourself too harshly as to how you have spent your time. The goal is to identify small changes you can make.

- Allow yourself some uninterrupted time to review your findings to see what your baseline for productivity is. Ask yourself some questions. Which days were normal? Which days had surprise tasks come up? How much different do these days look?

- You may find that you have certain periods of the day where you are productive and able to knock off many tasks -- those periods where it seems like time just flies. By identifying these periods of peak performance, it may help you to better schedule tasks which may require increased mental focus, thereby helping you work more effectively.

- Perhaps you notice that you regularly eat lunch at a given time. Ask yourself, "Am I eating because I am actually hungry now, or am I eating just because it's my scheduled lunch time?" You may identify that you are giving up some of your peak time simply because that is how you have always scheduled your day.

- By journaling and reflecting on your time, you may find inefficiencies in your schedule. A simple shuffling of your workday can improve the quality and efficiency of your workload.

- Recreation is also important as a stress management tool. Do you allow yourself time each day to unwind, to get some exercise, or to spend quality time with your family? By allowing yourself periods of time to care for yourself, you can improve your demeanor, your productivity, and your relationships with your loved ones while keeping your batteries charged. Perhaps you do not regularly dabble in hobbies or other recreational activities. Are there farm tasks that you do daily that you find calming or enjoyable? Try setting a daily schedule which allows doing one of those enjoyable tasks after finishing something more tedious, or, if possible, try scheduling those activities during times where you are winding down.

Ultimately, taking a little time to tend to oneself is beneficial. This might be having an evening cup of coffee, watching a favorite television show, reading or catching up on some healthy and refreshing sleep. By allowing time for ourselves, we are participating in some good preventive medicine against stress. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, increased stress levels are associated with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other illnesses, including mental disorders such as depression or anxiety.

If you can develop the habit of tailoring your daily schedule to account for your highs and lows, you may well find that you are able to get more done in less time over the course of the day.

So, take some time during a week to complete a time journal. Then come inside, kick your boots off, and stay a while. There's no need to feel guilty -- you've found and saved this time for yourself.

Michigan State University Extension has a variety of classes to help people learn to manage stress. Visit our Managing Farm Stress website to learn more about resources such as the MSU Extension Teletherapy pilot project and free online farm stress training Rural Resilience: Farm Stress Training.


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