Communication and Mental Health – By Sara Chambers

Benefits of a proactive communication strategy when addressing the mental health of your team.

Now that the first part of “busy season” is (mostly) in the rearview mirror, I’m sure many of you are taking stock of how your operation performed and are planning for any improvements needed heading into the next few months. Some of your equipment might not have performed as well as you expected, or you’re looking at upgrading some infrastructure to make calving go smoother for an increased herd size next season. As you analyze your operation to decide where intervention is needed, I encourage you to take some time to check in with your team. Long hours in the drill, late nights calving and more can impact our employees in ways that are not always obvious. Even if you have a seasoned team that has been through the increased demands of spring many times before, it’s still worthwhile to spend some time finding out how they think things are going and get a grasp on potential challenges that might be on the horizon.

There’s more than one benefit to scheduling regular check-ins after a busy time of year. Effective communication is consistent. If your employees know to expect regular one-on-one check ins, any constructive feedback or coaching you need to do will come as less of a shock. Consistent feedback that proactively addresses any concerns you or your employee has can strengthen your relationship with that employee by giving them the confidence to operate day-to-day, fully knowing what your expectations of them are.

Another benefit to checking in with your team regularly, but especially after more stressful times of year, is to get a grip on any employees that are not coping as well as they appear to be. In my work with farm families, I have had multiple calls this spring about employees struggling with their mental health, and employers not sure how to approach the situation. It’s important for me to state that I am not a mental health professional, however, there are some things I have learned through my own experiences as a manager that help me advise these families on some best practices for supporting their employees.

Firstly, whenever an employee comes to you stating that they are struggling with their mental health, it’s important for you to approach the situation with empathy. As business owners, it’s common to get defensive or even compare our situation to the employees’, because we ultimately don’t want to play a part in negatively impacting their mental health. I’ll urge you to remember your role as their employer and leader, and only take responsibility for the things you can control.

This starts with finding out what you can do to help them. Duty to Accommodate is something every employer should familiarize themselves with, preferably before a mental health concern arises amongst your team. Admittedly, the information on what applies to agricultural business and in which provinces can be a bit confusing to navigate, but a phone call to your provincial human rights council should direct you to the correct resources. I would also encourage employers to take the “more is more” approach when deciding how to handle these situations. Back to my previous comment about approaching the situation with empathy, would you rather be the boss who supported their employee as much as they could, or the one who did the bare minimum during a time when their employee needed them the most? The long-term implications with regards to employee loyalty and buy-in in both situations are hopefully obvious to anyone reading this.

When deciding how to support your employee, listen and let them take the driver’s seat.
Your employee may have requests that are simple and easy for you to accommodate (time off to rest, the day off to see a mental health professional, etc.). If you’re able, offering to pay your employees for their time away can help remove a financial barrier that may have otherwise prevented them from taking the time they need. Make sure to establish a check-in date with them where your extra financial support will end, so that you can discuss the path forward.
The next part of your conversation should include encouraging them to consider what support they might need for the long-term. Not only so that you can prepare for any impact to your business in advance, but also so that they know you are taking their situation seriously and don’t expect them to “recover” after catching up on sleep. I would also recommend establishing a mutually agreed upon check-in schedule, so that you are being proactive in your support.

Once you have a plan in place with the individual, it’s time to examine the way you run your business. This is not to place blame on yourself or anyone else, but to see where you might be able to create some space during busy times to support a more balanced lifestyle for your team. We all know farm work comes with stressful times and long hours, but getting to the finish line of busy season should not come at the expense of our employees. For example, how would hiring another person impact your team’s workload? What about introducing shift work to shorten their working hours? Or implementing mandatory hours of rest in between shifts? Just because some employment standards that apply to other industries are not required in agriculture businesses, does not mean you shouldn’t consider implementing them to benefit your team.

Once you have some ideas on improvements, I recommend meeting with your entire team to get their feedback and encouraging them to share any ideas you may not have considered. Be open in stating that you’re trying to create a working environment that supports their mental well-being and are willing to do as much as you reasonably can while continuing to operate a profitable business.

The final consideration I will include (which is not to say that this list is exhaustive) is how you keep record of these conversations. If you have employees, you should have employee files locked and stored safely in your office. You should keep record of any conversations (including check-ins) that you have with your employees with regards to their mental health, which you both sign. The contents of these records should focus on your business’s “involvement” in the situation, any accommodations you offer and any timelines that you and the employee agree upon. Mental illness (along with addiction, which many people are surprised to learn) can be considered a disability and so, legal action can be taken against an employer by the Human Rights commission if a complaint arises. Therefore, it’s important to keep record where you can show you made every effort possible to support your employee without causing “undo hardship” onto your business.

Depending on your personality type, the thought of having some of these intensely sensitive conversations with your employees can seem extremely daunting. It might appear to be easier to turn a blind eye and avoid the subject altogether. However, in the long-run, the efforts you make towards creating a workplace that aims to support a healthy work-life balance and recognizes the impact your business plays on your teams’ mental health, will not be in vain. Being a considerate and supportive employer will strengthen the relationship you have with your employees and hopefully mitigate the potential impact to your operation should a similar situation arise in the future.

Sara Chambers, is a farm management consultant specializing in HR with Backswath Management  She can be reached at 431.554.5390 or .

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Register now for The Next Chapter of Your Farming Journey – November 12th and 13th 2024 in Regina, Saskatchewan
Register now for The Next Chapter of Your Farming Journey – Nov. 12th & 13th 2024 in Regina, SK