Your Work as an Ag Professional: Helping Tame Farm Stress- My “Top 10” List

  • Shutske, John M.

John Shutske, Professor and Extension Agricultural Safety and Health Specialist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison

  1. Understand the basic physical, chemical and physiological workings of the stress thermostat, including the effects of cortisol (and other chemicals) on thinking, memory, distractibility, health, communications and relationships.
  2. Help others regain a sense of control by seeing their situation concretely and realistically. Write down (or encourage them to write down) numbers, goals, next steps, timelines and resources to contact. Know that if you only talk about concepts and ideas in an abstract way and rely on memory, little will happen.
  3. Encourage others so THEY set goals on paper. Your clients should participate and then write down goals, ideally following the SMART goal framework*:
  4. Have patience as you walk through decisions and plans with your clients. LISTEN. You may have a grasp on the objective reality of a situation, but because of the real and measurable impacts of stress on our perceptions, your client will likely not see the situation as clearly.
  5. Help others tap into and fully use the social support systems they have around them. These systems could include Extension, technical college staff, churches, schools, trusted and experienced advisors and elders in the community. It’s also very helpful when farmers can reach out to and learn from other farmers. Peer learning and support is enormously helpful as people share concerns, accomplishments and solutions.
  6. Know that all healing takes time. Many people may need to simultaneously focus on physical and mental wellbeing. Making changes and looking toward the future takes physical energy. Know that some individuals and families might choose to focus on things that you may not see as the highest priority. Or worse, you might view their number-one concern as irrelevant. Do not dismiss their concerns, as they might be overwhelming the emotions of your client.
  7. Dealing with stress requires a holistic approach, meaning a team is needed. Make sure to involve people with appropriate expertise considering issues of finance, production and other technical specialties. Do not overlook the roles of health professionals including mental health. Technical skills are important, but so is the ability to listen.
  8. Help others see their stress response as a call to action. In her popular “TED Talk,”** Dr. Kelly McGonigal says, “Stress gives us access to our hearts. The compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning in connecting with others…your pounding physical heart, working so hard to give you strength and energy. And when you choose to view stress in this way, you’re not just getting better at stress, you’re actually making a pretty profound statement. You’re saying that you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges. And you’re remembering that you don’t have to face them alone.”
  9. Follow up with clientele in a pre-planned, scheduled manner. We all need support, and regular check-ins create a sense of reliability and help others achieve goals they’ve set. Be positive. Recognize and celebrate progress. Listen. Be patient. It might take multiple tries to make significant progress. All forward progress is good progress. And slippage backward, when properly framed, can be a great learning opportunity.
  10. Finally, take care of yourself. For professionals, this heavy-duty work can sap energy, and for many it can be just as stressful of an experience as it is for those whom you are serving. Get support from others doing similar work. Listen with the intent to connect. Seek help and lean on other team members. Take time away. And know when you need a break.

*SMART Goals are based in part on original work by:
Doran, G. T. (1981). “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives”. Management Review. AMA FORUM. 70 (11): 35–36.

**Dr. Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. She is also the author of the book cited below. To view her 2013 “TED Talk, How to Make Stress Your Friend,” go to:
McGonigal, K. (2016). The upside of stress: Why stress is good for you, and how to get good at it. London, United Kingdom: Penguin.

John Shutske is a professor, Cooperative Extension Specialist and Director of the UW Center for Agricultural Safety and Health at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Shutske has over 30 years of experience working with the agricultural community, Extension educators, health professionals and agribusiness leaders. His work has focused on agricultural health, safety and risk control and communication. In addition to his faculty role in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, Shutske also has an affiliate professor appointment in the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health.

The University of Wisconsin Center for Agricultural Safety and Health is a joint effort of UW-Extension and the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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Editorial support & assistance provided by Kelly Morehead, copyeditor

Reviewed by:
Roger T. Williams, Consultant/Mediator, University of Wisconsin-Madison Emeritus Professor
Rachael Rol, Intern, National Farm Medicine Center and UW-Center for Agricultural Safety and Health
Daniel Lunetta, M.D. Candidate, Wisconsin Academy for Rural Medicine, and UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health

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Publication #: A-ASH-103 September 2017

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