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BeSafe conference explores impact of stress on farmers' wellbeing

New research funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has been presented today, Tuesday 18 June at the 2024 BeSafe Conference in Teagasc Ashtown by Dr Diana Van Doorn, Teagasc Research Officer (Safe Habitus) that explores the impact of stress on farmers’ wellbeing.

BeSafe conference explores impact of stress on farmers' wellbeing
Pictured from L to R: Dr Denis O’Hora, University of Galway; Dr David Meredith, Teagasc researcher and leader of the BeSafe project; Dr Hazel Dalton, Charles Sturt, University of Australia; Minister Martin Heydon TD, Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; Finola Colgan, Mental Health Ireland; Professor Pat Dillon, Director of Research, Teagasc; Professor Marijke Beltman, UCD and Dr Mohammad Mohammdrezaei; Research officer, Teagasc, Ashtown.

"I strongly believe that farmer wellbeing is inextricably linked to farm safety, because a busy or distracted mind cannot be fully focused on the task at hand."

Outlining the findings of the research, Dr Van Doorn stated: "While extensive research in Ireland and internationally shows that farmers often experience stress, there has been limited investigation into its impact on their overall wellbeing. Our research clearly indicates that frequent stress does not automatically result in poor wellbeing for farmers. The wellbeing of many farmers is maintained even though they experienced stress ‘to some extent’. We did find that high stress is associated with lower wellbeing scores, but it does not invariably lead to poor wellbeing. These findings point to the importance of supportive factors such as family and social support, coping mechanisms and personal resilience, which buffer the effects of stress on wellbeing.

Data that was collected from 754 livestock farmers in 2018, when there was a prolonged period of extreme weather events, showed that 111, or 15%, were assessed to have ‘poor’ wellbeing. Of this group, 13 farmers (12%) experienced stress ‘all of the time’ whilst a further 18% experienced stress ‘often’. Detailed analysis of 199 dairy farmers, a group that are known to experience a higher number of stressors, found that in 2018, 61 (31%) recorded ‘below average’ or ‘poor’ wellbeing. Of this group, 7 (11%) experienced stress often or very often. One year later, when conditions for dairy farmers had improved, the survey was repeated with the exact same group of farmers and found that 56 (28%) recorded ‘below average’ or ‘poor’ wellbeing, whilst the number who experienced stress often or very often was the same as 12 months previously.      

Dr David Meredith, Teagasc researcher and leader of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine BeSafe project, highlighted the critical implications of this research for policymakers and industry bodies. "Firstly, our analysis shows that not all farmers experience stress. Secondly, stress levels among farmers changes over time, meaning that current stress does not guarantee future stress. Most importantly, the research clearly demonstrates that focusing on stress means that we ignore really important and positive factors associated with being a farmer that protect mental health.

Professor Pat Dillon, Director of Research at Teagasc, noted the significance of these results for Teagasc's strategic goals and initiatives aimed at improving farmers' living standards and wellbeing. "As an organisation, we are committed to improving the quality of life and wellbeing of farmers. We do this by undertaking research that supports the development of practical solutions to challenges faced by farmers. To support farmers effectively, we need evidence that identifies and addresses the specific causes of stress, such as coping with extreme weather events, navigating administrative processes, and enhancing management skills through education and training."

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine with responsibility for research and farm safety, Martin Heydon T.D. opened the 2024 BeSafe Conference.

Speaking at the conference Minister Heydon said: “Awareness around the importance of positive mental health is increasing across society including amongst farmers. I strongly believe that farmer wellbeing is inextricably linked to farm safety, because a busy or distracted mind cannot be fully focused on the task at hand.

Minister Heydon added: “Building on the BeSafe project funded by my Department, I am committed to funding further research and supports in the area of farmer health and wellbeing. My Department is currently implementing a number of initiatives in this area, including the expanded On Feirm Ground 2 programme.”

The 2024 BeSafe Conference, held at Teagasc Ashtown, brought together experts and stakeholders to discuss and advance research focused on farmers' safety and wellbeing. The project involves researchers from Teagasc, Galway University and University College Dublin who were funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.