Communication – it’s more than words… and worth more than you think

This topic will be discussed as part of our online bonfire on July 28 at 7:30pm, “Communication – It’s More Than Words.”

It may be crass to talk about money, but Mitchell* has always planned to be a millionaire farmer by the time he’s 40. And at 29, he’s well on track.

But just last year, he was close to leaving his family’s farm near Wangaratta in north-east Victoria altogether, as his working relationship with his parents had deteriorated and it was starting to affect Mitchell’s mental health and wellbeing.

Growing up, he had a fantastic relationship with his parents. He loved every aspect of looking after their sheep and growing the crops. He enjoyed the physical work as much as the business side of farming.

However,  a few years ago relations with his Mum and Dad became strained after Mitchell pushed them to buy an extra 300 hectares of land from the neighbour.

“Mum and Dad agreed and initially seemed happy about growing the business”, Mitchell said.

“But then they almost seemed resentful and started watching the money like a hawk. And when I would try to talk to them about buying more land, they’d basically shut down, change the subject, or leave the room.” Mitchell didn’t know it at the time, but the financial pressure and increasing levels of debt was making his mum particularly stressed and anxious.

For Mitchell, this was devastating. He knew he was a good farmer, who had studied and understood business. He presented his parents with budgets, plans and even approvals from the bank. But it eventually reached a point where he thought it would be better investing his time slowly building a farm of his own, rather than working with his parents.

What saved the family – and the farm, was sitting down with a family business professional, who helped them create a clear line between the workplace and family relationships. It also enabled the family to understand that stress from workplace conflict was also affecting the functioning and productivity of the family business.

“When you start thinking about each other in a work context, then you quickly realise, that it’s a problem of communication,” Mitchell said.

Poor workplace relationships and poor support in the workplace are two work-related risks to mental health that were impacting Mitchell’s family and their business, and these can both be addressed by improving communication in the workplace.

Worksafe Victoria has information on how poor communication can cause stress and lead to mental health problems, adding to feelings of injustice (such as in Mitchell’s case). It advises managers or members of a family business to ensure there is regular communication, opportunities to raise and address and issues (such as team meetings) and to start a conversation, at the earliest sign of stress, in an open and respectful way.

John Broons is a Family Business specialist and says many farming families avoid talking about the big issues.

“If we just talk about the business and we don’t talk about the family stuff, then we are just putting our heads in the sand and we are not going to be prepared when change occurs within the family that affects the business,” John told Farm Weekly.

“The dynamics of families in business is not just about accounting. The business can be quantified – when there is a discussion about the business we go straight to the numbers – but I can’t tell you the profit or loss of your children, it’s a very different equation,” he said.

Factors which influence our ability to communicate, include:

  • Family history
  • Communication style
  • Self-esteem of individuals 
  • The different styles of communication between the generations

Mitchell says he now understands that while he was talking to his parents, he wasn’t effectively communicating and that was causing conflict and poor workplace relationships

“I’ve come to realise that I can be a bit like a bull at a gate when I want to pursue an idea,” he said.

“I also understand where my parents are coming from – I didn’t know before that Mum’s mother was left to retire on nothing because of some bad farm business decisions.”

Mitchell said his parents are also working on their own financial barriers and learning to trust him more.

“And I’m pleased to say I’ve convinced the folks to buy another block of land, ” Mitchell said.

“I know a million bucks is not really worth much if you don’t have your family by your side. So that’s my focus. ”

When it comes to running the family farm, investing in mental health initiatives is not only good for your family and staff, but it’s good for business too. The NCFH is supporting farmers just like you to manage and respond to work-related risks that impact on workplace mental health – these are factors in your work that can affect an employee’s mental health and include high job demands, low job control, poor job support and more. Managing these factors, means decreasing the risk of work-related stress, which can prevent physical injury, mental injury or even both at the same time. Find out more about being mentally safe on the farm at

This blog is part of the Primary Producer Knowledge Network led by the National Centre for Farmer Health to promote mentally healthy workplaces. Campfire, part of The Primary Producer Knowledge Network, is funded by the Victorian State Governments WorkSafe WorkWell Mental Health Improvement Fund.

Join the online bonfire session, “Communication: It’s more than words” on July 28 to hear more from John Broons and Hugh McDonald about their strategies for good communication in a primary production workplace, and how it can prevent work-related stress.

*Primary producers featuring in this blog are fictional, but based on research interviews with farmers, and developed with the assistance of the National Centre for Farmer Health