Forget Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, life is more like a pie.
To maintain balance, it should be divided into six equal pieces, each representing time spent looking after one’s health, relationships, spirituality, recreation, daily responsibilities – and, yes, work.
The problem is, many people, especially farmers, have been programmed since birth to believe that success can only be achieved through hard work.
“As farmers, we don’t know what vacations are,” said Gerry Friesen, at the recent Farmer-to- Farmer workshop which focused on the need for maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
But pursuing financial success to the exclusion of all else is a bit like dividing up life’s pie into unequal parts – one huge slice representing work, and just five measly slivers for the rest.
Friesen, who has been a “recovering farmer” since he quit the hog business in 2007, was recently asked if he practises what he preaches during an appearance on CKLQ radio.
“No, not usually,” he admitted. But later that afternoon, he packed a pile of unfinished work into his briefcase and hit the links for his first round of golf this year.
“I paid for it last night and early this morning, but it was worth it. For a fleeting moment, my life was in balance,” said Friesen.
Greg Gibson, a Brandonbased clinical psychologist who jokes that he’s the “Abbott to Friesen’s Costello” in the Farmer-to-Farmer workshops, also confessed to feeling like a “hypocrite” when discussing work-life balance, especially with regard to the key pillars of nutrition and exercise.
For that reason, he maintains a “humble” approach in his advocacy, he said.
When a flywheel is out of balance, the bearings get worn out. In the same way, when work, which is ideally just one of many important aspects of life, takes up too much of the pie, the resulting stress can lead to burnout, and a “downward spiral” that may end up in a breakdown.
Every person has a limited amount of energy. When too much “gas” is burned up on a single pursuit, that tank runs dry long before the needs of health, relationships, spirituality, recreation and daily responsibilities are met.
Swilling coffee or gobbling junk food to save time makes matters worse because they shortchange health needs and can affect sleeping habits. So is reaching for a bottle of booze or chain-smoking to grab some instant relaxation.
Poor life balance on the farm can lead to mental fatigue, poor cognition and decreased performance, which in turn can increase the perceived need to rush. The result could be a tragic accident, especially when working with heavy equipment or livestock.
“People say, ‘Yeah, but I love working. If I didn’t work, I’d feel lost,’” said Gibson.
He noted that NASA scientists have devoted a lot of time to mitigating the effects of “social deprivation,” or the mental health effects of spending a lot of time in remote locations or tiny space capsules.
Too many hours in the tractor cab could similarly lead to depression-type symptoms, he added.
In Grandpa’s day, pitching hay and stooking sheaves meant that when his head hit the pillow, he didn’t need a sleeping pill to knock him out.
Ironically, technology makes life easier in some respects and more difficult in others. For today’s farmers, most work is done sitting down. Balancing that out to relieve stress requires vigorous exercise of some sort, such as walking or sports.
“The importance of physical activity can’t be overestimated,” said Gibson. “Lack of physical activity can be both a source of stress and reduce our ability to cope with it.”
Time spent on hobbies, a “self-care” technique, can also help provide balance. But that’s often a hard sell for people who are deeply enmeshed in work and have convinced themselves that the world will end if they take time off.
“People say, ‘I don’t know how to have fun,’” said Gibson. “Isn’t that something?”
Worse still, many people have forgotten how to laugh. Friesen noted that the problem gets worse as they get older. For instance, studies show that while children laugh 400 times a day, adults only manage a chuckle 14 times a day.
“What’s there to have fun about? I have to get back to work!” said Gibson. “Laugh while you work. Work doesn’t have to be stressful.”
“Theimportanceof physicalactivitycan’t beoverestimated…”
GREG GIBSON – CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST
“Asfarmers,we don’tknowwhat vacationsare…”
GERRY FRIESEN – “RECOVERING FARMER”