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Fuel your fire to prevent and manage burnout

Brittany Olson for Progressive Dairy Published on 03 August 2020
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When you look at a propane torch, the blue portion of the fire is the innermost part that burns the hottest. Just like that torch, we all have an (albeit figurative) blue flame – a sense of passion and purpose and love that burns hotter than anything else inside our souls – that fuels us throughout our lives and gives us unique talents to share with the world.

Chances are, if you’re reading this blog post, dairy farming is your blue flame. Dairying is a rewarding and wonderful profession, but it is also a physically, mentally and emotionally demanding profession. When you’re juggling the daily demands of a dairy farm and additional tasks like raising a family, fieldwork, community involvement and other projects, you may feel like you’re burning the candle at both ends – especially during the summer when the days are long and the to-do lists seem even longer. In addition, farming is so core to our identities that we often lose ourselves in our work.



A fire, whether literal or figurative, needs fuel to keep going or it risks burning out. According to a 2018 article from the Mayo Clinic, job burnout is a type of work-related exhaustion that can produce a sense of failure and identity loss. While burnout isn’t an official diagnosis, it can have roots in conditions such as anxiety and depression or serve as a precursor to developing those two disorders.

In addition to anxiety and depression, burnout can be caused by a lack of control, which happens a lot between the weather, the markets, and working with cattle and crops. Other causes and risk factors include unclear or unidentified job expectations, unsafe or otherwise dysfunctional work environments, pushing one’s body to physical extremes, work-life imbalance, social isolation and trying to be everything to everyone. 

Signs of burnout include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Becoming critical or cynical at work

  • Dragging yourself to work and/or having a hard time getting started

  • Becoming irritable or impatient

  • Lacking the energy to be consistently productive

  • Loss of focus

  • Feeling disillusioned

  • Loss of job satisfaction

  • Using food, drugs or alcohol to cope

  • Changes in sleep habits

  • Unexplained physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach and bowel problems, and other complaints

If left untreated, burnout can leave people at risk of not only developing a mood or anxiety disorder, but also more vulnerable to developing conditions such as insomnia, substance abuse, heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. Moreover, burnout burdens our immune system and leaves us more susceptible to catching the common cold, influenza, coronavirus and other contagious illnesses.

Fortunately, burnout can be addressed and resolved before it evolves into a much bigger mental or physical issue. Be direct with those around you by addressing your needs with your family and farm team and work together to create solutions to what must be taken care of right now and what can wait a bit. Reach out to family members and friends to let them know how you’re feeling, and lean on their love and support to help you cope. Take some time to do non-farming activities you enjoy and create memories with the ones you care about the most. Also, while dairy farming is a labor-intensive job, it doesn’t count as exercise. Find a form of physical activity you like to do and stick with it.


Additionally, just like a fire needs air and room to breathe and grow, make sure you get enough rest. If it means having to say no to one thing, needing to step back from something else or delegating tasks to someone else, do it. I know the days are long this time of year, and I too dislike needing to say no or admitting I need help, but the farmer is the most important thing on the farm – and the hardest thing to replace. Our cows, our communities, our consumers and our families need us to be physically, mentally and emotionally healthy.

Have a happy, productive and safe summer and fall harvest. Don’t forget your blue flame – both its presence inside your heart and the need to take care of it.  end mark

Brittany Olson is a dairy farmer and freelance writer from Chetek, Wisconsin. She and her husband, Sam, milk 40 registered Holsteins and Jerseys on their 116-year-old farm.