While the conclusions might have come as no surprise to those in the industry, the research carried out by the University of Exeter and national charity The Farming Community Network (FCN), confirmed the reasons behind the widespread feelings of isolation and loneliness prevalent in the sector – and highlighted that these were often linked to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
The study found that the long hours farmers worked trying to keep their business going despite low returns left little time for socialising, relaxing, or spending time with their family - while other challenges included a lack of social opportunities, geographical isolation and declining business-related contact.
Poor rural broadband and transport connections were found to add to this sense of isolation, as well as a general feeling that the public had little understanding of the challenges involved in producing food and managing the countryside.
“Farmers are currently facing a multitude of challenges and many told us about how they are struggling to find the time to socialise or take a break from the stresses of the occupation,” said Dr Rebecca Wheeler, who led the research.
“Farming can be a lonely life for both farmers and their families and negative views of farming among the public can exacerbate feelings of isolation further.” She said more needed to be done to celebrate the work farmers did and to support them in making positive changes where needed.
The research also provided a number of important recommendations for improving support to farmers, including continued investment in rural broadband; further education and outreach to help the public understand farming and its challenges; and normalising taking time off-farm and finding a healthy work-life balance.
Participants told researchers ‘hard work’ was an accepted and valued part of what it meant to be a farmer, and that this could lead to pressures and expectations to work harder whatever the situation. Loneliness and other mental health problems were compounded by a reluctance to talk about their worries, sometimes even to those closest to them.
Dr Jude McCann, chief executive officer of FCN, said there was a need for a culture change in farming to allow farmers to take a break from work without fear of judgement – and to actively promote time off as an essential part of successfully managing a farm business.
“Taking a break from the farm or having a rest from work is not a waste of time. The truth is it’s one of the most productive things you can do,” said McCann.
“Farmers told us they are expected to be strong and resilient and that admitting they are struggling and need help would be an admission of failure, of somehow not being a ‘good farmer’.” Adding that the widespread culture within farming communities of not discussing mental health issues had to be addressed.