Is your farm “mentally healthy”? The answer is probably in your workplace design

This topic will be discussed as part of our online bonfire on September 22 at 7:30pm, “Practical Tips to Prevent Stress on the Farm” with Dr Kate Gunn.

The overall mental health of your farm often depends on how the workplace is designed. Sandra and Paul hadn’t required staff on their Gippsland beef farm until recently and realised the hard way that they needed to provide structure and feedback to employees to keep them engaged and motivated.

Ask a farmer what they love about their job and the word “freedom” usually comes up.

For farmers it’s as much about the outdoors as it is avoiding the corporate trappings of seemingly endless meetings, red tape and layers of bureaucracy.

Sandra* runs Angus cattle in Gippsland, Victoria and says she just likes to wake up every day and get on with it.

She and her husband Paul were used to farming by themselves, with help from contractors, as well as their son and daughter.

“But the kids are in their mid 20s now and off studying and working in the city, so we’ve had to take on some employees,” Sandra said.

There are now five people (including Sandra and Paul) working on the farm. And running a team – both in terms of work design, and looking after the workload and mental health of their workers – has been a steep learning curve for them both.

“I didn’t realise how much of the stuff Sandra and I do all the time, lives in our heads. It’s not written down, or on a board. And it takes more time than you think for people to learn the ropes. Plus, we had to learn that how we communicate expectations to our workers matters.” Paul said.

The flip side to the great freedoms of farming, can be a lack of organisational structure. This can lead to employees having a lack of clarity about their role, increased feelings of stress, and conflict. When this is combined with the high job demands of farming, it can ultimately lead to poor mental health outcomes.  (See: Preventing and managing work related stress: a guide for employers).

Sandra and Paul felt frustrated with their new employees at first, who didn’t seem to show enough initiative or understand when there might be an issue with the cows.

“We realise now we expected too much of them too soon and didn’t really know how to provide feedback or positive support,” Sandra said.

The feedback they were getting from their own staff, wasn’t good. Sandra and Paul were told by their employees that the workload was unrealistic. One person even quit, mainly because of the pressure and poor communication about what was needed.

This caused Sandra and Paul to realise their farm was not just ‘theirs’ but a workplace, which needed to be a positive environment for everyone. They accessed Worksafe’s WorkWell tool kit, which helped them implement a good work design, where staff roles were defined, tasks were set out clearly and a regular feedback  system was established.

“There’s so much more to creating job satisfaction and a good workplace, than just telling people ‘Here’s something that needs to be done,’ now go do it,” Paul said.

“I think some farmers worry that if they start implementing too many processes, you’ll end up with a bunch of meetings and pointless tasks. But you really don’t need to change too much and, it has actually lifted our overall productivity as a team.”

Sandra and Paul found their staff became much more engaged and motivated by including the team in the decision making, listening to their ideas and making sure each team member had a variety of tasks.

A mentally healthy workplace requires leaders who:

  • demonstrate commitment to mental health in the workplace
  • manage workplace relationships respectfully
  • treat employees with fairness and respect at all times
  • demonstrate a zero-tolerance for bullying and discrimination
  • are accessible and willing to listen
  • communicate clearly and openly in a timely manner
  • provide feedback in a constructive way
  • ensure employees have safe workloads
  • clarify role expectations and reporting structures
  • provide reward and recognition for good work

(From Worksafe’s Mental Health: Safety Basics)

A mentally healthy workplace also requires leaders who are mentally fit themselves.

Dr Kate Gunn is a clinical psychologist who has created a free, online tool, ifarmwell, to help farmers cope with challenging circumstances on the farm.

Kate grew up on a rural property herself, near Streaky Bay, in South Australia and understands how difficult accessing mental health services can be. She says sometimes all a farmer needs are some practical tips on improving their wellbeing.

“A lot of us spend time worrying about things that never actually happen and waste a lot of energy doing that, so what this tool does is help people work out where their mind tends to go… whether or not that’s helpful to focus on and then how to shift their attention away from unhelpful stuff,” Dr Gunn told the Wellington Times.

For farmers, this may mean focusing on things like the weather, drought or commodity prices, rather than channelling that energy into what can be controlled (i.e. planting at a different time of year, finding government grants or looking for new markets).

“Farmers are very good problem solvers who are good at fixing things in their everyday life, but it’s when they feel like they can’t solve an issue that it becomes challenging for them. So, it’s about moving on from what can’t be fixed, and focusing on what can be,” she said

When it comes to running the 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, low role clarity 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 team for the online bonfire session, “Strengthening Your Support Team: Rural Financial Counselling Service” on September 22 at 7:30 to hear more from Dr Kate Gunn about her recommendations and strategies for a mentally healthy workplace.

*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