I have this boxer puppy named Sugar Ray. Lately, I’ve noticed that he can read me pretty well. He can see the look on my face and know whether I’m in a playful mood or whether he should just play it cool and head to the kennel.
Turns out, Sugar Ray isn’t too much more intuitive than almost any other animal. Animals can distinguish between those times when their handler is upset and those times when their handler is relaxed.
According to Dr. Michael R. Rosmann, who writes for the Southern Farm and Livestock Directory, farmers’ stress levels also can have an impact on the health of their animals. Rosmann referenced Swedish research which studied the effect of manager/employee stress on the physical health of the cows on dairies across Sweden.
As you might have guessed, the study found that stressful working conditions and behavioral health symptoms are not uncommon among owners, managers and employees. Reported stressors included having to work very fast, having little influence over decisions and workloads, low sense of meaningfulness of the work and low sense of staff coherence. As a result of these stressors, workers suffered from irritability, fatigue, insomnia, headaches, nervousness and abdominal pain.
This study, though, was more helpful than the one that discovered water is wet. It turns out there’s a domino effect involved with employee stress. In the study, behavioral health symptoms in the employees were directly correlated with lower productivity in the dairy cows.
On the other hand, workers who felt their contributions to the dairy farm operation were valued by the owners/managers reported fewer symptoms and greater pleasure from their work, and the animals they handled were more productive. Happy cows come from happy handlers, not just from California, as the advertisement might make us believe. The emotional health of caretakers and the way caretakers treat their cows is more important than geography. It’s also possible that, in a kind of “pay it back” phenomena, healthy animals make their caretakers feel better, too.
Reducing animal productivity is not the only consequence of employee stress. Stress also raises the probability of employee injury. An analysis of injuries to North Dakota farmers indicated that stress, especially financial difficulties, increased the chance of personal injury. In another research study reported in the Journal of Agromedicine, researchers determined that stress was a risk factor for agricultural injuries.
As we all know, fatigue is a hard stressor to overcome. Fatigue can affect our bodies in much the same way alcohol does. Often, fatigue is brought on, not just by exertion, but also by something called “sleep debt.” We go into sleep debt when we obtain less sleep than our bodies need. On average, humans require about eight hours of sleep a night. If we get less, we accumulate sleep debt.
Once a person accumulates 10 hours of sleep debt, he/she behaves similar to someone who has a blood alcohol concentration of .08, which is the threshold for inebriation. So it’s easy to understand that, with ten hours of sleep debt, our reaction time is slowed, motor skills and memory are reduced, we are more emotionally impulsive, and judgment is compromised — the greater the sleep debt, the greater the likelihood of injury.
I don’t think my dad would have accepted the idea of sleep debt as an excuse that morning I drove the tractor into the side of the barn. And his “gentle encouragement” to wake up only lasted a little while.
What is the answer, then? It helps if supervisors promote regular communication with their workers and demonstrate leadership in maintaining a behaviorally healthy working environment, says Rosmann. Regularly scheduled meetings of owners, managers, and workers help to eliminate stress by making employees feel valued.
Other suggestions would be incentives for valuable suggestions and rewards for employee excellence. These don’t always have to be monetary. A little innovative and creative thinking can yield a harvest of ideas. The main idea is that reducing employee stress can have a very positive effect on the livestock for which the employee gives care.
For help with team-building, stress reduction, and other issues of employee behavioral health, contact Hugh Gray at Westview Behavioral Health Services, 276-5690.