10 learnings from the FCN Helpline

This article was originally written for the 2022 LAMMA event (4-5 May). We were asked to highlight any learnings from our Helpline that could contribute to building a healthy and sustainable farm/life balance.

FCN’s Helpline (03000 111 999) volunteers take between 100-150 calls each month, although this number can rise significantly following severe weather events and animal disease outbreaks.

We monitor twelve reasons why people call FCN – and family relationships, financial stress and poor mental wellbeing are at the top of the list each month.

The biggest category in our recording is ‘other reasons for calling’ – so it can be seen that people in the farming community experience a wide range of issues that cause difficulties. Cases presenting to FCN are often multi-faceted and complex in nature.

Here are our top ten observations:

1. Unmanaged stress is likely to become a problem to the people and the farm business

Workplace stress accounts for around 18 million lost workdays annually and costs the UK economy over £20billion. On farms the impact of unmanaged stress can be significant – and can lead to relationship breakdowns, ill health and feelings of being overwhelmed. Stress is at the heart of many of the calls we receive and is especially impactful at times of change. Knowing the signs of stress in oneself and those we live and work with is important and practicing some simple techniques can keep stress under control.

FarmWell includes some top tips on managing stress from the FCN team. You can also watch a short film about how a Somerset farmer addressed his depression here:

2. It’s important to find a ‘farm-life balance’

Linked to managing stress is finding a good farm-life balance. Easier said than done, as there is often little separation between the home and the workplace and caring for livestock is a seven-days-a-week job. But not taking time out to recharge away from the ‘day job’ can eventually lead to burn out. We become exhausted and lose concentration and the ability to make good decisions. It can contribute to feelings of being overwhelmed.

Watch a short film featuring Scottish farmer Scott Dewart on how he manages to find a farm-life balance and the importance of avoiding burnout:

3. The ‘unexpected’ will happen – a contingency plan will help when it does

We receive a surprising number of calls when someone critical to the farm is suddenly unable to work and those remaining struggle to keep the business running. It can be a stressful time for all and sometimes results in problems with animal welfare and other difficulties. Producing a simple emergency contingency plan is time well spent and can ensure that family and staff can keep things ticking over. It doesn’t have to be complicated; a simple ring binder in the kitchen, office or workshop containing key contact details for staff and suppliers, passwords, banking details, information about livestock requirements and other critical information will suffice.

FarmWell contains suggested headings and examples of contingency plans.

4. It’s never too soon to start a succession conversation

Many calls we receive are about difficulties resulting from a lack of succession planning. This is a difficult subject area for many, but a crucial one. Succession is probably the single most frequent issue that leads to family relationship breakdowns on farms and rising stress levels for all concerned.

We receive calls from people who feel they haven’t been granted sufficient responsibility in the business, and we hear from those at the other end of the spectrum who feel under great pressure to take over the farm, when they see their career going in a different direction. The one common factor is that if the conversations about succession issues had started earlier and been managed in a calm and considerate manner, better outcomes would have been more likely.

Farmwell contains a range of information and resources about succession planning.

5. The paperwork matters

Few people like it, many of us loathe it and it’s easy to put off – whether it’s tax returns, cattle passports, audits or stewardship applications. We regularly receive calls where movement records aren’t kept up to date and this results in visits from Trading Standards, which can then open up a host of other issues. It’s really important to try and stay on top of important paperwork.

If you feel the farming paperwork is getting away from you, give our Helpline a call on 03000 111 999 and we will connect you with someone who can help.

6. The start of a plan is better than no plan

Right now, we are facing the biggest change in farming for a generation, with a complete overhaul of the support payments system. There is a huge amount of information being directed at farmers and landowners, much of it complex but lacking in detail. If this feels overwhelming, you are not alone and there is a danger that people put off making plans because of this. Whilst the task can appear immense, it doesn’t all have to be resolved tomorrow – but making a start is important, even if it’s some initial steps to think how you can approach it.

FCN’s booklet ‘The Journey Ahead’ contains contributions from around forty organisations providing suggestions and insights into planning – it may just give you some inspiration and you can download a copy here or request one via our Helpline on 03000 111 999.

7. Communication, communication, communication

A breakdown in communication amongst family or staff can lead to a snowball effect, impacting on relationships and getting in the way of daily work as well as future planning for things like succession and diversification. Many calls that FCN receives stem from poor communication and people feeling as if they’re not listened to or included. Being a good communicator starts with being a good listener and these skills can be learned. It is so important to maintain good communication within farming families and it will help to avoid the build up of tensions that can lead to bigger problems down the line.

The charity Mind has produced useful guidance on improving communication within families and a personal communications skills audit – you can read more here: Improving-family-communication.pdf (rbmind.org)

8. Living well in later farming life is possible

Many farming people don’t want to fully retire – farming is their life, and it is important for them to stay connected in their local farming community and live the later part of their lives in a fulfilling and dignified way. But we often see situations where sufficient thought hasn’t been given to living well in later life, which includes succession, but also includes considering pensions, how to maintain independence, powers of attorney, having a will and deciding how we will actually spend our time.

On FarmWell you can find more information about living well in later life.

9. Investing time in safety is time well spent

Some of the most distressing calls we take relate to serious injuries or death following farm accidents. As an industry, our record in this area is not good and there is significant work still to be done. Listening to the heart-breaking stories of how lives have been changed and families torn apart following avoidable accidents, it is easy to think ‘if only’. We urge people to consider safety on and around the farm – we have witnessed the tragedies through calls to our Helpline.

A good place to start is The Farm Safety Foundation here Farm Safety Foundation / Yellow Wellies – YellowWellies.org

10. Sometimes, we all need a ‘blether’

It’s a privilege to live and work in the British countryside and the amazing farming industry that we are all part of. But it can be lonely and sometimes the pressures can get quite overwhelming. Our traditional ‘tough as old boots’ farming culture can occasionally get in the way of acknowledging we could do with some help, as we ALL do at times during our lives. Picking up the phone and talking to someone at these times is so important – and asking for a bit of support is a strength not a weakness.

The FCN Helpline is open 7am-11pm every day of the year and is staffed by volunteers who understand farming. If you are experiencing a tough time, give us a ring in complete confidence on 03000 111 999, even if it’s just for a chat and to hear a friendly voice.

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