September 27, 2023

Have you ever felt exhausted? Empty? Snappy at others? Given today’s workload, it’s more than likely that you may be experiencing a form of burnout. It’s a common term, but what does it really mean?

The American Psychological Association defines burnout as the “physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes toward oneself and others. It results from performing at a high level until stress and tension, especially from extreme and prolonged physical or mental exertion or an overburdening workload, take their toll.”

Iowa farmer Kylie Petty says, “I am here right now, and it’s hard! I just watch a church sermon on burnout last night. [The pastor] talked about how you have to find that one thing that recharges you.”

She notes that it’s the one thing that you can do where your mind does not go to work, kid’s schedules, or chores.

“For me,” she said, “that’s saddling up. I haven’t ridden my horse in years but it’s the only place my mind can fully escape. It’s finding the motivation to take that leap even when you know that’s what you need. He talked about the difference between stress and burnout. And the difference between rest. Not curling up and sleeping to recharge but escaping from the busyness to recharge your mind, your energy.”

Image by Heidi Crnkovic

How can you identify the signs of burnout? When Herbert Freudenberger first coined it as a technical term back in 1975, burnout was defined by three components.

  1. Emotional exhaustion: The fatigue that come from caring too much, for too long.
  2. Depersonalization: The depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion.
  3. Decreased sense of accomplishment: An unconquerable sense of futility — feeling that nothing you do makes any difference.

When you realize you’re experiencing burnout, there are many ways to treat it. Burnout is actually a medically diagnosed condition; these cases require professional help and/or medication. If you are in that place, please look for a therapist — and know there is a growing number of sites that can connect you. Email me if you need help finding them.

More mild cases are helped by taking time for a variety of stress reducing practices: prayer, sleep, journaling, reading, or turning to relaxing hobbies. Some other ideas to help — which are also great ways to proactively keep burnout at bay:

  • “Find a way to de-clutter. Focus only on what’s important at that time. Make a list of everything that needs to be done and fill in with stuff that you want to do but isn’t important. Learning to say “no” has also been a big help, says Wisconsinite Joseta Halbur.
  • Jeff VanderWerff, a Michigan farmer, shared “The struggle is real. My brother and I play golf every Wednesday at 4. No exceptions. No phones, no farm or ag retail talk. Just golf. He talked about how chatting with their neighborhood friends also helps. “None of them are in ag in any way. Other than some general “how are crops” and “how’s business” type questions, they don’t really want to hear me talk about farming or ag retail, the same way they don’t want to talk about accounting, or nursing, or heating and cooling all night long. We talk about literally everything BUT our jobs. Politics, kids, sports, etc. I think that’s something that ag people really aren’t good at-talking about anything OTHER than agriculture. It’s a great way to clear your head.”
  • Extension Educator Kaycee Davis shared “I find that meeting with other agents, networking actually rejuvenates me. Also, when I can remind myself of the rewards of my career (specifically when working with kids).”
  • Whitney Kinne in Missouri shared a a few of her tactics, which included finding a change of scenery, staying connected to God, moving her body, and holding space for slow, silent solitude. She also noted “Talk to someone regularly who is not a loved one or coworker. Could be a therapist, coach, etc., but someone who can help you stay accountable to a plan that takes care of you. I have two coaches, and the conversations I have with them help me stay grounded. They also can say from a non-biased place, ‘Wow! You’re doing so much! I want you to prioritize rest this next week. What will that look like?’ Without them I will fall into old workaholic habits and that leads me on a path to burnout!”
  • Cornell Dairy Specialist Kimberley Morrill acknowledged she’s been dealing with this for the last several months. “Step 1. Acknowledge what is going on. 2. Accept it doesn’t resolve itself on its own or overnight. 3. What works for someone else might not work for you.”
  • Wisconsin farmer Kevin Hoyer looks to tractor therapy.
  • “Being able to find that activity that fills you up — baking, putting yourself in a timeout, or just praying. The other thing is physical exercise — going for a walk or better yet getting your heart rate up for just 20 min 3 times a week can reduce your future health issues,” is what Minnesotan David Weinand recommends.
  • Nebraska farmer Paula Peterson says, “I am learning that it is OK to just be OK and acknowledge that I don’t have to be great and say I’m great when I’m not. It is a huge relief from my personal expectation that I have to be ‘on’ all the time.”

Which of these can help you avoid or reduce burnout and decrease your stress? Try implementing an idea this week to find more peace for yourself.

Michele Payn helps the people of agriculture have the tough conversations about managing stress, connecting with consumers, and making sense of science through her speaking and writing. Learn more at or follow @mpaynspeaker on social media.

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