When catastrophes like avian flu strikes farms, stresses run high

University of Minnesota Extension has created new resources to help farmers and others deal with compassion fatigue and other forms of job stress.

Emily Krekelberg speaks with farmers about mental health and stress.
Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service file photo
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Agweek Podcast: Compassion fatigue in agriculture
Thu May 12 18:53:44 EDT 2022
Agweek reporter Noah Fish is joined by Emily Krekelberg, University of Minnesota Extension farm health and safety educator. Krekelberg talks about new resources Extension has created to help farmers deal with compassion fatigue and other forms of job stress as the avian influenza outbreak has led to depopulation of more than 2 million commercially raised birds in 20 Minnesota counties. She also talks about podcasting in the agricultural realm.

Stress runs high for farmers and other ag professionals, but especially when confronting challenges such as as the ongoing avian influenza outbreak.

So far, avian influenza has led to the destruction of more than 2 million commercially raised birds in 20 Minnesota counties. When an infected bird is detected, its entire flock must be killed.

“We have to remember the human side," said Emily Krekelberg, University of Minnesota Extension farm health and safety educator. "This is hard on people, both those who raise poultry as well as those who work with them and must be involved with flock depopulation."

Krekelberg said that compassion fatigue, also referred to as compassion stress, is the kind of stress or overwhelming feelings people may get as they try to support others. An example of compassion fatigue in agriculture would be overseeing staff who experience high levels of stress because they work in flock depopulation.

"So in an occupational sense, supervisors may feel compassion fatigue if their employees are going through something that's really stressful or are handling a situation that is less than ideal," she said.


Although there may have not been a name for it in the past, Krekelberg said compassion fatigue is something that has always existed.

"We all experience compassion in our own way, and some people are more susceptible to fatigue than others," she said.

Compassion fatigue really comes into play in emergency situations like the avian influenza outbreak.

"With (high pathogenic avian influenza), it might be supervisors and their employees who are in charge of depopulating flocks , and that is a really unfortunate occurrence when there is a confirmed positive test in the flock," said Krekelberg. "But it's what we need to do for the safety of the birds and to reduce transmission."

Supervisors of employees who are having to depopulate birds that they're normally caring for need to be able to provide "extra support to them," said Krekelberg. But in return, they need to think about their own mental health.

"It's kind of mental health 101, that when you are offering so much of yourself to somebody else, it can be really easy to forget to take care of your own self," she said. "And that's where I think we see this compassion fatigue set in."

How to notice signs of stress

How to pick up on compassion stress in others is going to be a little different for each person, said Krekelberg.

"Some of the warning signs are common stress indicators that we look for anyways, but a big one for compassion fatigue is a loss of compassion or empathy," she said. "So we get so burned out, we're so fatigued from this, that we just can't do it anymore, so we just stop — that is a really big indicator."


Some other emotional indicators are feelings of detachment and depression, she said, and physical symptoms may be headaches, stomachaches, trouble sleeping or performing poorly at work.


Krekelberg said people can always turn to Extension, which has always been supportive of providing information for farmers on mental health.

Currently, Extension has a lot of information specifically related to stress caused by HPAI.

"I really encourage people to look at this, and we do have some additional resources that are going to be coming out on other topics, including anticipatory stress, grief and ambiguous loss, as it relates to HPAI," said Krekelberg.

Extension has created new resources to help farmers and others deal with compassion fatigue and other forms of job stress. Learn more at . Additional resources are available through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture at .

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast.

While covering agriculture he's earned awards for his localized reporting on the 2018 trade war, and breaking news coverage of a fifth-generation dairy farm that was forced to sell its herd when a barn roof collapsed in the winter of 2019. His reporting focuses on the intersection of agriculture, food and culture.

He reports out of Rochester, Minnesota, and can be reached at
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