Managing stress and burnout

In farming there are many things outside your control, which can increase your risk of unhealthy stress.

Month after month of badly managed stress can eventually result in ‘burnout’. Burnout sneaks up on you over time, like a slow leak. It’s characterised by physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, detachment and feelings of ineffectiveness.

Farmstrong asked farmers their questions about stress and burnout. Clinical psychologist Sarah Donaldson answered these questions and provides advice on managing stress and preventing burnout.

Sarah Donaldson on stress and burnout

Tips on stress and burnout

Talk to others

If you're struggling to cope with stress, that’s when it’s good to talk to others. Surround yourself with people who are upbeat, pragmatic and able to give you a different perspective. This can change the way you look at a situation. Having strong connections with family and friends and others in your community are a big part of staying well.

Reduce your stimulation level

When your body is under threat from being too busy or mentally pressured, it releases stress hormones that increase your stimulation level making it hard to relax or sleep well at night. To prevent being overstimulated, do some exercise or try deep abdominal breathing and other relaxation techniques.

Think in helpful ways

Become aware of your negative thoughts and practice thinking in more helpful ways. An example would be, "Yes, it’s been a tough year with drought, but the long range forecast is more promising. Every farmer in the area has been through this before and got through ok." Thinking in helpful ways gives you better balance and helps reduce distress.

Common questions from farmers on stress and burnout

How do you manage unhealthy stress?

Awareness is key. The earlier you recognise the signs of unhealthy stress the better  you’ll be able to manage them.

Recovery periods are vital. Daily and weekly ‘down time’ is important as well as taking a holiday after really busy times.

Secondly, come up with a plan. Instead of trying to do everything, it’s about asking yourself what are the one or two top things I need to work on right now? Focus on them and park everything else. Once you’re feeling back in charge and your stress levels go down, some of the other issues bugging you may disappear.

A way to cope with lots of demands is by reducing  or delegating them to others. Check out the Coping Bottle analogy for how unhealthy stress can build up to the point where you ‘blow your lid’.

 What is burnout and how do you know if you’ve got it?

Burnout is essentially your body hitting the wall and saying, “I’ve had it. You should’ve given me a break and you haven’t.” Your body is letting you know that it’s mentally and physically exhausted.

Signs include:

  • low energy and motivation to do even normal everyday tasks
  • severe irritability where little things become highly frustrating
  • losing your temper easily and often
  • inefficiently tackling and completing tasks
  • feeling ineffective and that you’re not accomplishing enough.

Have a look at the actions and behaviours checklist in the The Warning Signs of Unhealthy Stress. If some of these look familiar to you, then you may be experiencing burnout or heading towards it.

How do you prevent burnout?

When people are under pressure the things that disappear are often the things that keep us well and prevent us getting burnt out. Continue to:

  • socialise with other people
  • exercise regularly
  • eat well
  • continue to learn
  • contribute to the community
  • get off the farm and do something you enjoy with others.

Building in enjoyable activities is really important. Those are the things that give us more coping space and keep us feeling on top of things. For more tips and ideas view Managing Stress – the Essentials.


At what point would you consider it more than just ‘calving stress’ and be seeking help?

A general rule of thumb that a person is under unhealthy stress, is when their daily functioning and relationships are being impacted.

For example, if the person doesn’t seem themselves and shows ongoing changes in their normal behaviour and thinking patterns.

When we just keep going without a break from the ongoing physical or mental demands we are facing, our body finds it hard to keep up and the cracks begin to show.

A catch-up with your GP, a local counsellor, Rural Support Trust worker or supportive friend, can give you some ideas or a plan to get things back on track.  

For specific signs check out The Warning Signs of Unhealthy Stress. If a number of these signs look familiar then seeking help is a good idea.

How do you help your partner who says to themselves every morning "why do I do this job?"

It’s really hard to see and hear our partner unhappy, particularly on a daily basis. Ask them how long they’ve been feeling like this. It may be a symptom of ‘burnout’.

It would also be good to find out which bits of their job/business they’re ‘over’ and what they still enjoy.  Ask them what could help them feel more motivated to move forward. For example, do they need to:

  • get a temporary or permanent extra pair of hands to help them out
  • have a break
  • do a different role or have a job change

Bear in mind, it’s good to get your health and wellbeing back on track first before making any big decisions.


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