Drugs and alcohol on farm – a difficult conversation, but one worth having

This topic will be discussed as part of our online Bonfire Q&A on December 01 at 7:30pm, “Alcohol and Drugs on Farm” with John Darcy (VFF) and Dr Alison Kennedy (National Centre for Farmer Health).

Jack has been away at university and only occasionally been back to the farm – although his long-term plans will see him take over the family business when his parents start to step back.

But his most recent visits have opened his eyes to what he now sees as a serious alcohol problem amongst his peers.

“When I was playing footy at home I know Saturday nights could become a bit of a swim-through, especially if we won, but now I am looking at it in a new, and disturbing light,” Jack said.

“My mates still on the farm do work hard, but I reckon they play even harder and if I thought things could get a bit wild in Melbourne; I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff at home.”

Jack said what he found even more concerning was some of his schoolmates were happy to hit the bottle hard even if they were home alone.

He said he had also noticed an increase in drug use.

“I knew about drugs before I went to uni; but in the past three years it seems to have exploded, and there isn’t a thing you go to, even just a meal at the pub and a couple of  drinks after, where you don’t see people using them – or offering them to you,” Jack added,

“And then some of them go straight back to the farm and jump on the header or chaser bin and they shouldn’t be anywhere near heavy machinery. A few of my shearer mates also talk about drug use in the sheds to improve performance being pretty common.”

Farming is already a dangerous enough industry. Safe Work Australia’s report on deaths at work has found farming, fishing and forestry accounted for 23 per cent of all workplace deaths recent figures.

While farming does involve long and irregular hours; it is also an industry of isolation, high stress and job insecurity with success and failure often beyond the farmer’s control; with seasons, markets and weather the deciding factors.

All these things can encourage drug and alcohol use. Research into substance misuse clearly finds links between the use of drugs and alcohol and mental health problems, physical injury, reduced workplace productivity, accidents, drink-driving and violence.

Nearly half (44 per cent) of farm people in one study drank alcohol at high risk levels. This is a lot higher than in the general Australian population where 16 per cent of people who live in rural areas are moderate to high risk drinkers. 

Cannabis was the most common illegal drug used (12.7 per cent) followed by amphetamines (8.5 per cent). Some 20 per cent of study participants reported working while affected by illegal drugs during the past 12 months; compared to 2 per cent in most Australian workplaces. One third of people in the study smoked tobacco and it was the drug they were most concerned about using and a staggering two thirds reported psychological distress.

In some ways drug and alcohol use is also a cultural burden – an expectation of regular drinking, long and irregular work hours and a lack of information and support to address substance problems.

Drinking alcohol regularly was normal. One farmer said: “If someone drops around you’ve got to have beer. That is common practice. As soon as you run out of beer there is a potential problem. If someone drops around and you can’t offer them a beer personally you would feel that you’d failed.”

Another described drinking as part of the male farming culture where “if you don’t have a beer you’re not a man”.

Jack said the message really hit home with him when he heard a friend going to work just out the road for harvest had been doing big hours and he went and had a few beers and went home and that morning he just fell asleep at the wheel and it just caught up to him – he died.

Long hours and irregular hours can mean people use drugs to stay awake and keep working.

One farm owner said: “I’ve been out harvesting … it’ll be three or two o’clock in the morning and they’re bouncing around and then they start grinding their teeth. Yeah, so I do find it a lot when they’re doing 24-hour work. Like some of them might go for three days without a decent sleep”.

Drinking and drug use outside work hours can cause problems during work from hangovers or the ongoing use of cannabis or amphetamines to keep going, but few employers made the connection. One said “so as long as they do their job, what they did the night before is irrelevant to me”.

Jack said he found that attitude even more frightening – and dangerously enabling.

Drinking alcohol increases the risk of:

  • Short- and long-term health effects
  • Road deaths
  • Family violence
  • Cancer and reducing immune system functioning
  • The development and progression of poor mental health and suicide.

Alcohol masks the symptoms of depression and stress; and can make you feel worse; it’s a common but unsafe coping strategy for farmers and other people living in rural and remote areas. It’s also a risk factor for suicide.

For more information go to:

Alcohol and farmers | National Centre for Farmer Health
Farm-Safety-Assistance-v4.pdf (vff.org.au)

Farm-Safety-Walk-Talk-Flyer-Final-version.pdf (vff.org.au)

Alcohol Consumption, Obesity, and Psychological Distress in Farming Communities: An Australian Study (farmerhealth.org.au)Creating Healthy Workplaces publications (vichealth.vic.gov.au)

Injuries on the farm can lead to stress, long-term health concerns and loss of income or even fatalities, so preventing them from happening is the best way of protecting your mental health. When it comes to running the family farm, investing in mental health initiatives is not only good for your family and workers, 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 farm at www.farmerhealth.org.au/campfire.

Other references:
Intoxicated workers: findings from a national Australian survey – Pidd – 2011 – Addiction – Wiley Online Library
‘You’re Less Complete if You Haven’t Got a Can in Your Hand’: Alcohol Consumption and Related Harmful Effects in Rural Australia: The Role and Influence of Cultural Capital | Alcohol and Alcoholism | Oxford Academic (oup.com)

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.

You can join the online bonfire session, “Child Safety on Farm” on December 01 at 7:30pm to hear from John Darcy (VFF) and Dr Alison Kennedy (NCFH).

*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