Let’s stay socially connected this holiday and harvest season – for our mental health

This topic will be discussed as part of our online Bonfire Q&A on December 15 at 7:30pm, “Managing Fatigue and Staying Socially Connected”.

For the past two years, Simon’s Christmas dinner has been cheese sandwiches and cold chicken in the harvester’s cabin (truth be told, that’s where he had spent more Christmas days than he cared to remember).

Last year that’s where he celebrated New Year’s Eve as well – the season had been spectacular; the crops were better than he could ever remember.

And nothing was standing between him and getting every single grain of it in the bin and off to the silo.

Over the years Simon had ended up with odd harvesting setback; including the header all but wrapped around that one tree in the middle of the paddock.

But in 2020 it took family to set him right back on his heels and make him realising by not missing a single grain he was missing too much.

“I’d actually stopped to check something in the paddock when my wife and two of the grandkids came out in the 4WD to bring me a present still unwrapped,” Simon recalled.

“It was from them and the little devils had written on the card ‘we hope you can stay for lunch this year or how will Santa find you’.

“When I looked up, my wife was wiping away a tear, the two kids were basically staring up at me and I suddenly realised she wasn’t going all mushy over them, she was actually upset – and stressed.”

Simon was 68 and it had taken an eight-year-old and his 10-year-old sister to deliver the message he had been ignoring from his wife for years – they were a family first, and farmers second.

“It was a fair dinkum wake up call,” Simon later admitted. “I remember her being upset a couple of years back when a neighbour a few farms down was almost killed in a machinery accident because he had been going so hard during harvest he was simply knackered beyond belief.

“But I never thought that could happen to me.”

How many times have you said that to yourself; or dismissed news of it happening to someone else because you knew you wouldn’t make those mistakes?

Yes, you were yawning a lot; yes, you were getting grumpy and when you had come in for a late breakfast your wife had to prod you awake to say it was on the table in front of you.

Safe Ag Systems says fatigue is one of the most common hazards on the farm, and at the same time the most underrated risk for everyone.

No farmer worth his or her salt thinks they are ever going to be the one caught out just because they are a little bit tired.

But fatigue is more than that. You may not realise it, but fatigue interferes with normal daily activities and functioning, impacts on alertness and slows reaction times. Your ability to communicate can be affected, as well as mood. 

You might set out to set a harvest record; but once you are badly fatigued you are actually reducing productivity; taking longer to get things done – and risking micro-sleeps as you move machinery from paddock to paddock and up and down public roads.

And micro-sleeps can be fatal when you are at the wheel; risking not just your life but also the life of an innocent motorist unaware of who they are sharing the road with.

It would be hard to find a cropper who could cross their heart and say they had never dozed off or zoned out while working or operating equipment (aka a near-miss).

Do you remember what you did? Did you think ‘phew, that was lucky!’ and keep going anyway? Congratulations, you were lucky enough to survive a fatigue related incident. Not everyone is so fortunate.

Being awake for 17 hours is the same as having a 0.05 per cent blood alcohol content. Push that three hours longer and your BAC doubles to 0.10 per cent.

You wouldn’t hand that person a set of car keys if you were at the pub; why would you put them in charge of a huge piece of machinery, in a paddock, in the middle of the night, on their own?

Safe Ag says even though we know the logic, we still don’t seriously treat fatigue as the risk it is; and therefore we don’t talk about it in any real sense.

World expert on sleep and fatigue management, Central Queensland University’s Professor Drew Dawson, “we need to change the narrative around fatigue”. 

He said it needs to be OK; and people encouraged to speak up about being tired without fear of retribution or derision from others. 

Check out this fatigue self-assessment checklist and share it with your staff: Fatigue Self-Assessment Checklist template

But it was Simon’s wife Jean who had the last word: “Farming is already a very lonely industry; but not just for those out working in the paddocks all hours of the day and night. While they’re gone those of us at home are just as lonely”.

“But worse than that, when you know how worn down they are; you start to stress on their behalf. Things had got to the point I actually hated thinking about Christmas,” she added.

When it reaches that point – and you’re still missing the point – not only are you at physical risk; you are also gambling on your social and emotional wellbeing.

“And no chaser bin full of grain is worth anywhere near that,” Jean said.

if you think safety is expensive, try having an accident!”

Asleep at the wheel – a look at managing fatigue in agriculture [+ Free Checklist] (safeagsystems.com)
Regulators issue safety warning about farmer fatigue | Australian Institute of Health & Safety (aihs.org.au)
Fatigue on the farm

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.

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, “Managing Fatigue and Staying Socially Connected” on December 15 at 7:30pm.

*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