Stress – Friend or Foe?

Bob Milligan

Dr. Bob MilliganBob Milligan is a dairy consultant focused on farm leadership and employee management.  This piece appears in his April newsletter and is used here with permission.  He may be contacted at or by phone at 651 647-0495

Much is being written, especially in dairy circles, about the impact of the current economic environment on the stress level of farmers. Most has implicitly or explicitly cast stress in a negative light. That is not the whole story.

Stress is necessary for our normal functioning. Stress enables us to focus, to excel, to succeed. The challenge is that too high levels of stress lead to lower productivity, frustration, irritability, increased susceptibility to sickness, deteriorating interpersonal relationships, and even thoughts of suicide.

The question, then, is what can be done in the current environment to reduce stress or keep it from reaching unproductive levels. In this article, three ideas are discussed:

  • Be "brutally honest" in assessing the financial status of the farm business.
  • Don't let your concerns and frustrations "infect" your farm business culture.
  • Establish time management practices that reduce stress.

If you have a handle on your financial status, skip the next section.

Be "brutally honest" in assessing the financial status of the farm business

It is true that the process of determining the financial standing of the farm will be stressful. The alternative, however, is to live with uncertainty and fear, both contributors to being overstressed. The clarity of knowing the financial status of the farm and the, corresponding, ability to focus on necessary next steps should reduce the stress.

Many years ago, I gave a presentation based on my analysis as an outsider. One of my colleagues, who was a member of the group being analyzed, told me that my analysis was "brutally honest." That is what you must do; it will not be easy. You may be too close to the situation and require some "outside" assistance from a trusted adviser or an expert not associated with your farm. You must instruct whomever assists you to "brutally honest."

Your farm's financial status involves both profitability and "cash flow." In the short-run, however, cash flow status will likely be the focus.

Your cash flow status is based on whether the farm can meet its cash financial commitments - cash expenses, debt payments, compensation for owner's labor, capital replacement. Many farms not currently making a profit can meet their commitments, especially if they have low debt levels and/or small debt repayment commitments.

Many farms today are struggling to meet their financial commitments. This is where being "brutally honest" is especially important to determine the severity of the situation. Questions to ask include:

  • Is the lack of profitability only due to the current low prices?
  • Can the shortfall in cash be covered for the coming months or even years by savings and/or restructuring debt? Note: allowing accounts payable to increase will only increase stress and is delaying the "brutally honest" moment.
  • If the shortfall cannot be covered, what alternatives are available?

Don't let your concerns and frustrations "infect" your farm business culture

Patrick Lencioni in The Advantage argues convincingly that successful organizations, including farms, must be smart and healthy. Smart is what we usually focus on - production, logistics, quality, marketing, finances. Healthy relates to the farm culture - does everyone enjoy what they do? Does everyone enjoy working with their co-workers? Does everyone understand the importance of what they are doing and what they and the business are trying to accomplish? Does everyone finish the day and head home in a good mood? A healthy business - farm - has great job satisfaction, low turnover, minimal politics.

You - leadership - establish the culture. These difficult times create a very difficult situation for you:

  1. You are feeling disappointment, frustration, and even fear.
  2. It is crucial that you not allow these emotions to "infect" your employees and your farm culture.

"Infecting" your farm culture will only add stress to you and to your workforce. Your required behaviors must, therefore, be very different from your current emotions. This is a common leadership situation.


Perhaps the easiest example to relate to is a manager of a baseball team on a 10-game losing streak. The manager is feeling the emotions many of you are feeling - disappointment, frustration, even fear (for his job). His behavior with his players must, however, not reflect these emotions. He must be positive and encouraging to keep the players from becoming too "down" and help them remain confident and focused. You are in a situation like the baseball manager.

It is your responsibility as the farm leader to ensure that your behaviors and attitudes contribute positively to your farm culture. Remember, how you react - behave - in response to your emotions is a choice. You must not react instinctively. You must have thoughtful responses to these emotions so that your behaviors are the best for the farm.

Establish time management practices that reduce stress

Farmers are passionate about what they do and their farms! In most times, the stress created by this passion creates positive outcomes of focus, enthusiasm, and stamina. Now in troubling times, the positive stress that enabled the hard work and long hours working on the farm is tempered or even displaced by negative stress created by the current uncertainties. Making the situation worse is the natural tendency of passionate people to work harder and longer when times are tough.

Stated simply, instead of creating positive stress, the farm may now be producing negative stress levels. The simple solution of working less is not feasible. That does not mean, however, that nothing can be done to relieve the stress.

Here are some ideas:

  • A recent Harvard Business Tip of the Day titled "Establish an Evening Routine to Put the Workday Behind You" addressed the challenge of leaving work behind when the workday ends. First, the article suggests, end the day by doing something positive, perhaps a task then not left until tomorrow. Then do a specific action that signifies the end of your workday (or at least for now). Whatever you choose should be like employees checking out at the time clock. The idea is that this task will become a mental signal that the workday is over.
  • Make certain you have a clear plan for each day. Clarity increases focus; uncertainty and indecision increase stress. Developing this plan could be part of the end of day routine mentioned above.
  • Take a couple short breaks each day (also, don't skip lunch). Go for a walk, put your head down, or enjoy a drink (milk!). Research shows that we accomplish as much despite taking the time for a break.
  • Get away! You don't have to go to the Bahamas or the Grand Canyon to have a break. It can be as simple as a cup of coffee or an ice cream with family or friends.

A final comment

Recognizing and dealing with the emotions of disappointment, frustration, even fear is difficult. First recognize that these emotions are real and should not be ignored; you certainly should not feel guilty about or be afraid of emotions. They are real; they are you.


You need to have someone or several “someones” with whom you can openly share and discuss your feelings. This person may be a family member or friend, but that is not always the best choice. I suggest a confidant.

A confidant is an individual with whom you can "let your hair down." You can express and discuss your true emotions. You can brainstorm and discuss solutions. You can think through the real or root causes of your emotions and why you are feeling the way you are! You can discuss appropriate thoughtful behaviors.

Whoever you choose, make certain that your discussions are proactive and constructive. The discussions should focus on understanding and solutions, not on complaining. "Pity parties" rarely release stress or provide solutions.

Full steam ahead.