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Weather, workload and money

TResearch Spring 2022

Researchers at Teagasc and Cork University Business School have determined and evaluated sources of stress for farmers, by looking at the impact of both internal and external pressures on stress and wellbeing.

Farmers and farm workers experience high levels of stress and relatively low levels of wellbeing. Sources of stress, or ‘stressors’, can be external, such as challenging physical conditions or stressful situations, or internal, such as wealth and wellbeing.

Factors influencing this can include financial pressures, challenging weather conditions, workload, animal health issues and a decline in the sense of community or security in rural areas. Another important, albeit sometimes overlooked, factor influencing farmer wellbeing is the inherent attributes of those farmers who experience occupational stress.

A farmer’s socio-demographic characteristics – such as age, farm enterprise, debt levels, off-farm employment status and working hours (including those worked in off-farm jobs) – can influence their exposure to occupational stress. Indeed, for a more well-rounded understanding of stress, it’s necessary to examine the socio-demographic reality of those who experience it.

To date, there has been a lack of research examining the incidences and sources of stress impacting farmers with reference to their socio-demographic characteristics. So, researchers at Teagasc and Cork University Business School came together to address this gap in knowledge.

TResearch Spring 2022

Poor weather was identified as a predominant source of stress amongst farmers

Surveys on stressors

In 2018, 736 questionnaires were completed by farm operators through the Teagasc National Farm Survey, which operates as part of the EU’s Farm Accountancy Data Network (FADN). The questionnaires were designed to determine the prevalence of stress amongst farmers.

A supplementary survey accompanied the core questionnaire, providing researchers the opportunity to collect data on emerging farm level issues. The research team used this opportunity to ask farmers taking part a small number of additional questions associated with occupational stress and wellbeing.

Mary Brennan, Teagasc Walsh Scholar and member of the research team, says: “We asked farmers about their experience of farm-related stress and presented them with a list of potential stressors. They then selected those that, if any, they had experienced over the past five years.

“The data collected was then combined with variables categorising the demographic, farm and social characteristics of respondents. We also asked farmers about their sense of personal security, isolation and frequency of contact with those outside of their household, to provide additional data on farm socio-demographic status.”

The research team used frequency analysis to report the primary sources and prevalence of farm-related stress amongst farmers, while a probit model was developed to identify and evaluate factors that impacted the probability of experiencing stress.

Attributes of farmers experiencing stress  

The results from the probit analysis demonstrated that as farmers age, they are more likely to experience stress – although this plateaus in middle age. The model indicates that the probability of experiencing stress is less likely for farmers operating sheep enterprises, which is in line with results from the 2018 survey with farmers (Figure 1).

In addition, farmers with higher levels of formal agricultural education were more likely to have experienced stress in the running of their farm operations.

“This was an interesting finding,” says Mary, “as you might expect such farmers to be better prepared to manage adversarial events. It stands to reason, however, that farmers with specialised agricultural training seeking to optimise their production may as a result be more susceptible to high levels of work, and consequently work-related stress.”

The probit analysis demonstrated that intensity of production was negatively significant. In other words, as the output per labour unit increases, the probability of stress declines. This suggests that the profit associated with the additional work offsets the impact of workload on stress, and underlines the importance of farmers receiving a fair return on their labour.

The impact of off-farm employment was also negative and significant, implying that having an off-farm job reduces the probability of stress.

Emma Dillon, Senior Research Officer at Teagasc and another member of the research team, says: “Off-farm employment may provide farmers with an opportunity to ‘escape’ the various challenges related to modern farming, such as social isolation and loneliness. And indeed, the additional income stream may help to improve risks to farm income posed by external forces.

“The effect of loans was positively correlated and significant upon the experience of stress, as expected, implying that the more indebted the farmer, the greater the likelihood of stress.”

A reduced sense of security, infrequent contact with those outside the household and living alone were not statistically significantly associated with the probability of stress. Neither were total working hours nor family farm income (FFI).

Within the FADN, FFI is not inclusive of additional household income, such as earnings generated from off-farm employment or spousal income. It’s also presented as an aggregate income figure. As such intermittent fluctuations in cash flow, which may represent a source of stress, are not readily captured.

As FFI is not wholly representative of farm household finances, it stands to reason that financial stress which is independent of farm income may be a factor, and a more comprehensive assessment of household income within the core FADN would be insightful. 

Support for farmers

A key finding from the research team’s work is that farmers’ experience of stress is shaped by a number of socio-demographic and farm enterprise factors. As such, they recommend a more regular assessment of farmers’ stress levels and sources of stress.

“The current FADN methodology is not overly conducive to collating data on social sustainability, particularly in the consideration of more sensitive issues,” says Emma. “Although in its transition to the Farm Sustainability Data Network, the design of such holistic metrics will need to be further considered.

“Additional work is also required to examine how stress manifests, and how it may be mediated through resources, such as support from professionals and peers. And consideration of methodologies such as the Stress Process Theory (a framework used to derive hypotheses about social factors and depression) would also be worthwhile.

“Progress in this regard would assist policy makers in developing strategic and targeted wellbeing support for farmers, in an attempt to improve the overall sustainability and resilience of farms.” 

A closer look at farmers’ self-reported stressors

The results from the questions in the 2018 supplemental survey showed that 57% of farmers experienced stress or anxiety as a result of their farm work over the past five years. The figure was highest amongst dairy farmers, almost three-quarters of whom reported experiencing stress. This was followed by cattle farmers (57%), tillage farmers (55%) then sheep farmers (38%).

Figure 1 shows that the most frequently occurring source of stress across all farms was ‘poor weather’, followed by ‘workload’ and then ‘financial’ worries. The identification of poor weather as the predominant source of external stress amongst farmers was anticipated, particularly as Ireland was impacted by a number of extreme weather events across late 2017 and 2018. This resulted in the tightening of fodder supplies on many farms, with some regions impacted more than others throughout the course of the year.

Stress relating to workload was most prevalent amongst dairy farmers, an understandable finding given the rapid expansion of the sector in the aftermath of EU milk quota abolition in 2015.

TResearch Spring 2022

Figure 1. This graph shows the self-reported stressors of farmers who answered the research team’s supplementary survey questions in 2018. Respondents identified stressors they had experienced over the past five years.

*The ‘other’ category merges the percentage distribution of the following stressors to an average score: (i) succession planning, (ii) sense of security, (iii) isolation and (iv) regulation compliance.


This research was funded by the Teagasc

Walsh Scholarships Programme.


The authors wish to thank the NFS team and data recorders involved in the collection and validation of data, and the farmers who participated in the survey.


Mary Brennan

Teagasc Walsh Scholar

Rural Economy Development Programme, Teagasc, Athenry, Co. Galway; Department of Food Business and Development, Cork University Business School, UCC.

Thia Hennessy

Dean of Cork University Business School; Professor of Agri-Food Economics


David Meredith

Senior Research Officer

Rural Economy Development Programme, Teagasc, Ashtown, Co. Dublin.

Emma Dillon

Senior Research Officer

Agricultural Economics and Farm Surveys Department, Teagasc, Athenry, Co. Galway.