Understanding WHY We Feel Like We Do

Dr. Bob Milligan

Bob Milligan

There has been much in the ag press about stress and mental health. Those articles have focused on how you feel and what to do. To better understand WHY you and others feels as you do, we return to the topic of one my first short articles as this crisis slammed into us – the Grief or loss cycle.

In that article I talked about decision-making challenges in that cycle. Today, we must expand on that discussion. I believe that all of us are in one or more of the first three phases of the grief cycle. Here are my observations on each of the three:

  • Shock and denial. Symptoms include avoidance, confusion, fear, numbness, and blame. Certainly, no one is denying that COVID-19 is real. I do, however, believe that most of us are in denial about the potential severity of the crisis and avoiding looking at worst case outcomes. I recommend that every one of you realistically identify the worst case or nearly worst-case scenario and then develop a contingency plan (see more about planning below). I truly hope you do not have to implement that plan, but I predict your overall decision making will be better by understanding more of the potential implications. An example: Here in the Twin Cities, the Guthrie, the premier theater in Minneapolis announced they are not starting the 20-21 season until March 2021. Their explanation was that they did such a contingency plan and realized they were more likely to survive with this plan rather than continuing to invest in productions that may or are likely to be cancelled.
  • Anger. Symptoms include frustration, anxiety, embarrassment, and shame. I think we are seeing this over and over again. You need to assess your own emotions and be certain that your responses to those emptions do not result in destructive behaviors toward family, friends, employees (also on social media). Look for these emotions in your employees and others. Be proactive in discussing these emotions and take action to assist the employees or others. You need to do what you can to help others avoid destructive behaviors toward you, colleagues, or others. Whenever you see a member of your workforce that causes you to think “this is not like _____,” you likely need to act. You also cannot allow your employees to become fatigued  or “burnt out” by working long hours.
  • Depression and detachment. Symptoms include overwhelmed, blahs, lack of energy, helplessness. Probably almost all of us are here to some degree. Like in the stages above, recognition that these feelings are normal is crucial. Two big implications:
    1. In addition to recognition, you need to identify mechanisms to pull yourself out of the funk and regain focus. You need to find ways to avoid thinking about doomsday outcomes (other than during the above suggested contingency plan) and to focus on identifying opportunities. For me, my daily walk is a source of rejuvenation.
    2. Now for the bad news. I know this is the time of year you love. You can get away from this office/planning shit and go out and plant, spray, etc. Sorry!  Not this year. Your priority right now must be planning. I am suggesting that leaders everywhere need to be spending two to three times as much time planning. The time requirement comes both from the uncertainty and complexity of the situations and from the need to collaborate with others due to this uncertainty and to your receded decision- making capacity. Again, I suggest every business needs virtual communication capacity to share list ideas, plans, and financials and to modify draft proposals.



Three Types of Planning

So, Bob, “why do I need to double or triple my planning time?” When I began my career in the 1970s and 80s, strategic planning for farmers amounted to developing a detailed annual financial plan, sometimes for several years. Today, we do not even talk about strategic planning; we talk about strategy.

Strategic planning was a road map. Even before COVID-19, there was far too much variability and uncertainty for farm owners or any other business owner to develop a road map for more than a few days or week. The focus is on a direction – a compass – used to make decision and adjustments frequently. Strategy takes much more time and constant attention than strategic planning.

Today the uncertainty is all encompassing requiring looking at numerous and ever-changing possibilities. Thus, the doubling or tripling.

I suggest thinking about three levels of planning

  • Detailed Plans – great detail; ready to implement. These are needed for decisions that are ready to be implemented. Your cropping and feeding plans are great examples.
  • Contingency plans – some detail; sufficient to know the threats and challenges. This is where the extra time likely will come in. These are needed to research possible options and for contingencies that have significant possible to occur. The detail needs to be sufficient for decision making and/or a place to get started should unfortunate eventualities occur.
  • Scenario plans – Unlikely but possible threats and opportunities; enough to get started when in grief or great urgency.



The following are some of the items you should be planning for. It will depend on your circumstance which of the three planning levels is needed; however, many will require a contingency plan:

  • A workforce member or family member has or may have COVID-19. (Don’t forget FFCRA).
  • A large enough proportion of your workforce has COVID-19 or is isolating that farm operations cannot be sustained.
  • An owner or key employee becomes incapacitated for a period of time or dies from COVID-19 or anything else – business succession.
  • A crucial input supplier or market outlet suspends operations or goes out of business.
  • Your farm business exhausts all its working capital.
  • A lender threatens to foreclose on some or all your assets.
  • A capital purchase opportunity – land, buildings, livestock — avails itself with a very short deadline.

Full Steam Ahead and Stay Well.

Editor’s note: Robert A. Milligan, PhD, is Senior Consultant, Dairy Strategies, LLC and Professor Emeritus, Cornell University. He may be reached at office: 651 647-0495; Cell: 651 343-6065; and email   rmilligan@trsmith.com


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