Preventing bullying on the farm: a workplace obligation

This topic will be discussed as part of our online Bonfire Q&A on March 9th at 7:30pm, “Preventing bullying in the farming workplace” with John Darcy (Victorian Farmer’s Federation).

My name is Sharon. Not Shazza, not Shaz and absolutely not Girlie or Dopey.

It doesn’t seem such a big deal; but very quickly after I landed my first ‘dream’ job it was sounding alarm bells in my head.

Growing up on a ‘hobby’ farm all I ever wanted to do was work on a real one, and I had not been able to resist those dreamy-faced Jerseys on a dairy down the road – so that became the dream.

I couldn’t believe how lucky I had been to find a job straight out of ag school; it all just seemed perfect.

Just as I still can’t believe how wrong it all went; or how long I put up with it.

I was employed after an interview with the farm owner and his wife; but their son-in-law Steve actually ran the business; the owners were stepping back and spending more time away from the farm.

And he started on me from day one; introducing me to the rest of the team as ‘Shazza’ and when I politely said I preferred Sharon he just laughed and said: “Hey, it’s just a nickname”.

But it wasn’t. Clearly, he didn’t like being corrected and when I look back my first day was the beginning of the end of my dream.

I got on well with everyone else; was a good worker who rarely needed to be told anything twice, but it was never good enough. Steve was always watching me, complaining I was too slow, wasn’t treating the animals properly, was cleaning up and Shazza soon became “bloody hell, girl, you are a useless lump”.

Yes, I know, I should have walked out then but for some unknown reason I thought it would make me a failure. And I wasn’t the only one suffering. Steve treated the two other women just the same – but was all buddy-buddy with the guys we worked alongside.

Even worse, his ‘mates’ knew what was happening, you could see it in their faces, but not one of them ever spoke up, or said anything to support us. It wasn’t until much later I realised they were probably intimidated by him too, and worried about their jobs.

Within 10 months I had had enough. The day Steve grabbed the cups I was reaching for, called me “useless bitch” and shouldered me aside I simply kept going in the direction he had pushed me, walked out of the dairy and out of the job.

I tried to explain it to the owners, but they simply said Steve “didn’t mean anything by it, he was just getting used to managing people”. If I hadn’t been taught respect by my parents; I would have laughed at them; I certainly felt like it.

But in the end, the worst thing about it all was not the job lost, it was my loss of self-confidence; and it would take me a couple of years and a bit of therapy before I realised none of this was my fault, that dairy had been simply set up for disaster.

I learnt, through time and talking about my experience, that the workplace had an obligation to me to set a culture and standard that does not tolerate bullying. That obligation wasn’t met.
It should never have been my responsibility to walk away from the job, to solve the problem – there should have been systems in place to prevent it ever happening.

Sadly, Sharon’s story is much more common than most of us would know – or like to admit. Perhaps the one upside of the pandemic is the focus it has put on mental health; especially in the workplace. Because if it isn’t positive and fair, somewhere, someone, is going to pay the price.

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

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, “Preventing bullying in the farming workplace” with John Darcy (Victorian Farmer’s Federation) on March 9th 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