Psychosocial issues in the agriculture sector

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Juliet Hassard and Kevin Teoh, Birkbeck University of London, UK; and Vidmantas Januskevicius, and Gediminas Vilkevicius, Lithuanian University of Agriculture, Lithuania

Introduction

The agricultural sector encompasses a large variety of activities that has seen a number of major changes in recent years. These changes, along with a distinctive rural life and work related problems may considerably influence stress levels in farming communities. This article describes some of the work-related psychosocial issues in the agriculture sector, and provides an overview into how these psychosocial issues may affect the physical and mental health of farmers and agriculture workers. Finally, strategies and measures for tackling psychosocial issues in this sector are presented.

Agricultural production and its change

What is farming/agriculture?

Agriculture, also called farming, is “the cultivation of animals, plants, fungi, and other life forms of food, fiber, biofuel, drugs and other products used to sustain and enhance human life” (pg. 77) [1] In order to provide an understanding of the variety of work within agricultural operations, a detailed definition of agricultural activities is required. Agricultural activities are defined as “a condition or activity which occurs on a farm in connection with the commercial production of farm products” [2]. More specifically, the activities in which a farmer or farm workers might engage in, or manage, within the definition of agricultural activities, includes:

  • land clearing, grading, contouring, ditching, fencing, plowing, tilling, planting, cultivating, fertilizing, weed, pest and disease control, spraying, pruning, trimming, harvesting;
  • constructing of farms and stock ponds, irrigation ditches and systems;
  • breeding, birthing, feeding and the care of animals, birds, honey bees, and fish;
  • repair, maintenance and incidental construction of agricultural equipment, structures, or machinery;
  • the storage of agricultural products and machinery; and
  • produce processing, packing, and sales. [3]

Statistics related to farming/agriculture

In 2010, almost 23 million people were employed in the agriculture sector within the EU-27 [4], with nearly 70% of those working full time in this sector accounted for by six EU Member States (Poland, Romania, Italy, Spain, France and Germany [4]. However, in comparison to 2007, there was a 14.2% decrease of the total farm labour force in 23 Member States of the EU [5]. In some countries (such as, Slovakia, Austria, Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Italy) the agricultural labour force was observed to decrease by more than 25% [5]).

In 2010, farmers from across the EU-27 and their family members constituted the largest portion of the total agriculture labour force (75% respectively), followed by regular non-family workers (15%) and non-regular non-family labour force (8%) [4]. The largest proportion of family labour force were in Poland (95%), Ireland (92%) and Malta (90%) respectively. The highest shares of regular non-family workers were in the Czech Republic (75%), Slovakia (69%), France and Estonia (both 45%); while the largest proportion of non-regular non-family labour force is found in Spain (19%), the Netherlands (13%) and Italy (12%) [4].

Work-related psychosocial issues in agriculture

Working in the agriculture sector is known to be a very physically and mentally demanding job [6] [7]. Within the European agriculture sector, 42% of workers reported that work had a negative impact on their health. This is substantially higher than the EU-27 average of 25% [8]. In Finland, a postal survey of 555 farms found that 55% of respondents experienced stress in farm work [9]. The detrimental impact that work can have on workers´ health is partly due to the different psychosocial hazards faced by farmers and workers in this sector, such as: long working hours, isolation, financial uncertainty, planning difficulties, administrative demands, and the interaction between stress and exposure to multiple physical risks. In fact, in one study of English farmers, Booth and Lloyd [10] observed 35% of surveyed farmers scored highly on the General Health Questionnaire, a representation of poor mental health. This study also observed that an increase in the number of work-related stressors reported was associated with an increase in both depression and anxiety levels amongst respondents.

Working hours

Work in the agriculture sector is characterised by working long hours, as livestock require constant care and crops need to be planted and harvested within specific time frames [6] [11]. The Fifth European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) showed that 45.3% of workers in the agriculture sector worked more than 48 hours per week. This was the highest observed percentage amongst all sectors, and, moreover, was found to be more than double the average (16% respectively) within the EU-27 [8]. Furthermore, 45% of agriculture workers reported working more than 10 hours a day on at least three occasions a month, which is more than the EU-27 average of 24.9%. Similar results highlighting the long working hours of agriculture workers have been observed in other national surveys from the United States [7] and the United Kingdom [12]. The long hours worked by agriculture workers means that they often work weekends as well. This is reflected in the Fifth EWCS where 47.8% of agriculture workers worked three or more Sundays a month (in contrast to the EU-27 average of 11%), and 62.4% worked three or more Saturdays a month (compare to 25.5% in the EU-27) [8]. The same survey also showed that 42.6% of agriculture workers worked 7 days a week, a substantially larger figure than the 5% average in the EU-27. These long hours may have a physical and mental toll on workers [12], which may be exacerbated by insufficient recuperation/ recovery time following work [13]. Ultimately, both long hours and insufficient recovery time can have detrimental effects on worker’s physical and mental wellbeing [12].

Isolation

Given that more than 90% of the agricultural area is located in rural regions [14] and that 78% of farmers in the EU-27 work alone [15], isolation and lone working can be a source of concern in the agriculture sector. Although there are some studies that show farmers do not feel socially isolated [10] [11], other studies have shown that this is a key issue of concern [12] [16]. However, available evidence demonstrates an association between poor social support and increased stress symptoms [17], depression [10] and suicide [18] rates amongst farmers. Due, in part, to the rural location of most farms means farmers and agricultural workers might not receive adequate or lower level of work-related social support [16]. Factors prevalent in remote areas (e.g., poor local transport, slower pace of life, and limited access to public services) can increase the feelings of isolation a farmer feels [19], and can make help seeking behavior more difficult [20]. Furthermore, the long hours that agriculture workers face can also have a detrimental impact on their work-life balance [21].

In addition, to social isolation, there are a number of agriculture tasks (e.g., land cultivation, sowing, plant protection operations, harvesting, fence mending) that are characterised by lone working [19]. Such work tasks can place the worker in a vulnerable position should an accident or injury occur, as the worker might not be in a position to handle the situation independently and colleagues might not be aware of or available should an incident occur [19]. Not only can the actual incident be detrimental to the health of an agriculture worker, but the concern with having to deal with a potentially difficult situation on their own (e.g., machine blockages and repairs, bull handling) can also be distressing and a potential source of stress to an agriculture worker [19].

Financial uncertainty

Agriculture outputs, be it crop or animal products, are vulnerable to market risks and competition [21]; which can be a significant source of stress for farmers [22]. In fact, some research studies [12] [18] [23] have found that the main contributing factor for depression and suicide in farmers was financial difficulty. Farms face competition from imported and cheaper produce from countries with cheaper labour and the dominance of supermarkets, the latter who very often provide low prices for agricultural products [21]. Furthermore, the European agriculture sector has in recent years been particularly affected by underinvestment in rural infrastructure, agricultural science, weather disruptions, and natural resource constraints [24] [25]. However, conversely, rising energy prices, subsidized biofuel production, increased income and population growth have contributed to a greater demand for agriculture products [25]. All these factors dynamically interact to create an environment that can have direct or indirect implications towards the financial security of farmers [24]. The role of financial uncertainty as a contributor towards work-related stress is seen in the findings of two research surveys that identify finances as the biggest source of stress amongst farmers [22] [26]. In order to generate additional income it is not uncommon for farmers to work on other farms or in non-farming roles [6] [22]. However, those who do so typically work even longer hours, and have been found to report more stress symptoms [6] [22].

Planning difficulties

Although more agriculture workers (60%) reported being able to influence decision making in the workplace as compared to the EU-27 average (40.2%) [8], the reality of the agriculture sector is that it is vulnerable to a number of external factors that workers have little control over. These include the seasonal nature of agriculture and stock problems. Plans made by farmers might become redundant or difficult to implement due to changes in the weather or stock problems. Therefore, rainfall, falling crop price and disease outbreak are some examples of external factors that make planning ahead in the agriculture sector a real challenge for many farmers to control and predict; which, in turn, can be a source of stress for farmers [27].

Seasonality

Weather conditions can differ considerably, with research demonstrating weather to be a significant concern for farmers and farm managers [11] [25] [26], with a potential detrimental impact on the mental health of farmers [28]. Destructive weather conditions have the ability to affect individual farms, such as when a field gets destroyed by hail or frost [29]. Poor weather conditions can affect a group of farms or community when their crops are destroyed by excessive rainfall, or entire regions of crops and livestock can be affected by weather conditions that include droughts or floods [29]. Farms that are involved in crop plantation are particularly vulnerable, as they may sustain heavy losses or may need additional planning and effort to save their crops [29]. The inability to influence the season/weather, disrupted plans and crop losses, extra financial and labour input present possible challenges that can contribute towards work-related stress symptoms [21] [29].

Stock problems

Stock crises generally apply to livestock farming. The stock crises may occur at a farm, community and/or regional level [29]. For example, a disease outbreak within one flock can be a stock crisis at the farm level. Diseases related to an environmental pollution source can affect the stock and health of a group of farms, while a contagious disease outbreak (e.g., bovine spongiform encephalopathy, foot-and-mouth disease, tuberculosis) has the potential to devastate an entire farming region. The economic effects of such situations are shared by entire rural communities, but farmers are particularly affected [21][29]. Overcoming each stock crisis requires significant work on the farmers’ part. Livestock treatment, quarantine, deciding which animals to cull, or the disposal of the dead livestock takes consider time and money, and, in turn, can be extremely stressful [21]. For crop farmers, along with the challenge of dealing with crop disease and pests, the possibility of damaged crops is another source of stress for farmers as well [21] [30].

Administrative duties and understanding policy developments

The administrative burden for farmers has grown significantly in recent years [21] [27]. These duties may include: preparing large numbers of documents when claiming for subsidies, accounting stock or crop, selling their produce, filling in tax documentation, and complying with occupational safety and health requirements or other inspections. While larger farms may be able to outsource administrative roles, farmers from smaller farms often have to integrate these additional demands into their existing workload [12]. Changes in legislation can also be a source of concern for farmers as they may be forced to change existing forms of practice [10] [12]. In a series of interviews with Danish farmers, Leskinen [31] observed that farmers had negative perceptions on new EU regulations and they felt that insufficient support was provided to cope with additional administrative duties due to these regulations. A survey by Booth and Lloyd of farmers from the South West of England found that 43% of respondents reported the amount of paper work as ‘a little’ stressful, and 54% reported this work demand to be extremely stressful ‘a lot’ [10]. The same survey also identified new legislation and paperwork to be the two biggest concerns for farmers. A similar observation was made in a different study by Simkin and colleagues, where farmers found the implementation of new legislation stressful [12]. However, Simkin and colleagues [12] also found that some farmers benefited from this change in legislation and, therefore, appreciated the implementation of these new policies. This perhaps suggest that whether or not a farmer perceives a benefit from the policy changes, may be associated with whether it is viewed as potential source of stress or not.

Dangerous working conditions

As seen in Table 1, the Fifth EWCS [8] not only highlights workers in the agriculture sector had higher prevalence rates of workers indicating poor physical working conditions than workers in the EU-27 [8].

Table 1: Percentage of workers reporting exposure to physical risk at least a quarter of the time

Physical Risk Agriculture Industry EU-27
Vibrations 41.9% 22.5%
Noise 37.1% 29%
Breathing in smoke, fumes, powder or dust 24.4% 16.5%
Handled chemical substances 23.3% 15.3%
Exposure to infectious material 14.3% 11.3%
Tiring or painful postures 72.3% 46.4%
Carrying or moving heavy loads 65.1% 33.5%
Standing or walking 88.7% 69.1%
Repetitive hand or arm movements 72.5% 63.5%
High temperatures 48.7% 22%
Low temperature 59.6% 23.5%,

Source: Fifth European Working Conditions Survey [8]

Exposure to these physical hazards can led to numerous health concerns, and are explored in other articles (e.g., Noise , Pesticide , Musculoskeletal disorders ). The agriculture sector contains numerous physical hazards that can contribute to or interact with other potential sources of stress, which may have direct or indirect implications for worker’s health [27] [32]. For example, a number of studies have observed the interaction between psychosocial hazards and ergonomics demands placed on agricultural workers to play a contributory role in the etiology of lower back pain [33] [34] [35].

Seasonal and migrant workers

Seasonal and migrant workers are often used within the agricultural sector to deal with labour shortages and seasonal demands [27]. Although the Fifth EWCS [8] does not specifically examine these group of workers, it did find there was a higher prevalence of workers in the agriculture sector than in the EU-27 that were on: a fixed term contract (16.8% vs. 12%), in temporary employment (2.8% vs. 1.3%), had no contract (12.4% vs. 4.7%), or had an ‘other’ form of employment status (5.1% vs. 1.2%). The use of seasonal and migrant workers raises problems related to their legal status, qualifications, language ability, and issues associated with discrimination . Migrant workers are often employed in low-paid and unskilled roles, which are typically characterised by poor working conditions (e.g., working long hours, evenings or night work, working during weekends) [36] [37]. In addition, seasonal and migrant workers often work on temporary or flexible contracts, face high occupational insecurity, are often weakly represented by trade unions [27] [38], and have little or no access to healthcare coverage [39]. Furthermore, language barriers faced by migrant workers may result in difficulty communicating work requirements, safety knowledge, and training or career advancement opportunities. #[Link to WEI-12-09-11 “Migrant workers”]# In addition to seasonal and migrant workers, Finland operates a substitute worker scheme where farmers can receive substitute assistance should farmers go on annual or sick leave [40]. These temporary workers likely face additional demands as they have to work on different farms with little time to learn specific practices or machinery. Undoubtedly, collectively these factors may constitute a significant risk for workers’ safety and physical or mental health [38].

Management of psychosocial issues in the agriculture sector

Farmers, as employers, are obliged by European legislation to protect workers’ safety and health including management of psychosocial risks [41]. Prior to any Interventions to prevent and manage psychosocial risks and work-related stress, employers, farmers or farm managers should work together with their staff to identify any psychosocial risks by conducting a thorough risk assessment. Although risk assessments specific to the agriculture sector for physical risks have been developed [15] [42], more work is needed to develop tailored toolkits to aid in conducting psychosocial risk assessments. Subsequently, interventions can be implemented that eliminate or control psychosocial hazards at the source, help workers cope with potential sources of stress, or provide rehabilitative treatment to workers [43]. The following sections aim to provide some examples of possible interventions to address work-related psychosocial issues in the agricultural sector.

Workplace policies

Workplace policies can be implemented to address identified psychosocial hazards [44] [45]. The purpose of these policies is to specify what needs to be addressed, how this will be done, and the responsibility of the employer and the employee within this respective process. For example:

  • Lone working policies can specify what to do when equipment breaks down, the use of communication devices (e.g., radios), and the frequency of communication with farm managers or other farm workers [15] [46].
  • Working hours policies may identify the acceptable amount of working hours, beyond on those contractually specified. These can also include other relevant factors such as length and frequency of breaks, meals, and available facilities [15].
  • Seasonal and migrant workers policies that specify what is expected of the employer from their workers, and what workers can expect in return (e.g., training, contract length, benefits). This has been conducted to protect seasonal workers in the hotel industry [47].

Training

Training and education can provide farmers and agricultural workers some control over planning difficulties faced in the agriculture sector. By updating their understanding on farming practices, material, machinery and business aspects, farmers place themselves in a better position to deal with the uncertainty they might face [48]. New practices or machinery might increase productivity, or diversifying farming focus (e.g., rearing goats alongside existing sheep herds) can limit any damage made by factors that might only affect one of these focuses [49]. Formal support groups can provide (Section 3.5) such support, information and opportunities. For example, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [50] in the United Kingdom has a programme encouraging farmers to diversify their business and consider integrating non-agricultural activities such as running a bed and breakfast and promoting rural crafts.

Improving social support

Agricultural networks (e.g., farmers’ unions or societies) are an important form of social support, which provides farmers the possibility to get together, share and discuss common problems, and to obtain useful information on various farming issues (e.g., good farming practices, health and safety, coping with issues etc.) [21]. There are different aspects for farmers to get involved in such networks, including participation at agricultural shows, markets and organising sporting or other activities and groups (e.g., voluntary or community organizations). More informally, another source of support is the local farming community [21] [30]. The community allows for day-to-day emotional support, help during busy times carrying out particular works, looking after the neighbour’s livestock, and other supportive behaviours in difficult situations [21] [51]. Beyond this community, developing a personal social network has also been found to be beneficial to farmers [12] [52]. These relationships encompass spouses, family members, neighbours and friends from the non-farming community [27] [30].

Improving formal support

Formal support for farmers is rendered by various governmental and non-governmental organisations [21] [53]. The support provided may be proactive (e.g., providing advisory services at agricultural shows, home visits, articles in the farming press, etc.) or reactive in nature (e.g., help-lines, assistance with form-filling and similar activities); and can also include topics such as mental health and wellbeing, administrative support and financial management [12] [21]. One example of formal support is the Farmer’s Occupational Health Service in Finland, which seeks to address a range of physical and psychosocial risks in the workplace [54]. This is done through health examination of farmers, health education, survey of working conditions and farm visit. Another example in Finland is the Farmer’s Social Insurance Institution, which not only provides insurance and pension benefits; but also provides sickness benefits and substitute farm workers to allow full-time farmers up to 26 days of annual leave [40]. Similarly in England, help-lines aimed at farmers have been shown to be effective in supporting the mental health of farmers [10] [12] [21]. It is, however, vital that any support initiative aimed at agriculture workers acknowledges the realities of rural life and the nature of farming problems [27].

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Links for further reading

European Commission, Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development, Rural development in the European Union, Statistical and economic information, Report 2010, 2010, p. 257. Available at: [27]

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, How to tackle psychosocial issues and reduce work-related stress, 2002,p. 127. Available at: [28]

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Prevention of psychosocial risks and stress at work in practice, 2002, p. 79. Available at: [29]