Employee assistance programs reduce workplace stress and improve agriculture

Most people connected with agriculture know that it is among the most stressful occupations. Many of the factors that affect the outcome of agricultural production, like the weather, are not under the operator's control; even the factors that far...

Mike Rosmann

Most people connected with agriculture know that it is among the most stressful occupations. Many of the factors that affect the outcome of agricultural production, like the weather, are not under the operator's control; even the factors that farmers can control somewhat, like crop management practices, are fraught with uncertainty.

Two weeks ago I wrote that persons engaged in agriculture (farmers, ranchers, farm laborers, fishers and lumber harvesters) h ad the highest suicide rate among 30 national Standard Occupational Classification groups , at 84.5 per 100,000 persons in the agriculture occupation during 2012 in 17 states that were studied. I suggested that a national program called the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network could help distressed farmers and their families and save lives if it were available.

The FRSAN was modeled after the Sowing the Seeds of Hope program that served seven Upper Midwestern states (Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin) for about a dozen years during the early part of this century, but ceased as funds ran out.

Each state had a farmer-friendly telephone hotline and website that offered confidential, free telephone counseling 24/7 to callers and emailers, as well as up to five prepaid counseling sessions from a licensed behavioral health care professional who had a farm background or experience working with farmers.

Essentially, it was an Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) for the agricultural population. Many problems could be resolved in five sessions.


Many companies and employers offer EAPs as an employee benefit. Contracted professionals provide counseling in a confidential fashion for a fee which the employer pays to the provider without requiring information about the employees served.

Are EAPs effective? A study in the August 2016 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, which was funded by the Employee Assistance Research Foundation and implemented by the Colorado State Government, showed that EAP services significantly reduced employee depression, anxiety and absenteeism, but not alcohol use, in comparison to no-treatment control subjects.

Many studies have indicated EAPs are effective at reducing personal problems and improving work productivity, but few have compared a treatment group with a control group. The Colorado State Government study used measurement tools to assess 344 participants who were assigned to treatment and control groups at intake and two to 12 months later.

Are EAPs beneficial for the agricultural population? The Sowing the Seeds of Hope project examined data collected from the users of professional counseling services who confidentially rated the agricultural behavioral healthcare assistance they received.

During a 25-month study period that ended Oct. 31, 2007, the hotline telephone responders referred 10,647 individuals, couples or families involved in agriculture in the seven states for professional behavioral health services. Most (91 percent) of the referred persons obtained the recommended counseling services. The rate of farmer suicide did not increase in the seven states, despite a difficult economic era.

Of the 10,647 referrals for professional behavioral health services, all but 6.8 percent were for mental health services, with the remainder referred for substance abuse counseling. Of the service recipients who completed confidential service evaluations, 92.9 percent said their services were helpful and they would recommend that people involved in agriculture obtain similar services if needed.

Are behavioral health services needed currently by the agricultural population? While net income has increased slightly in most American income brackets, and greatly for high earners over the past three years, agriculture has entered a recession period that seems likely to continue for a while longer.

There is an oversupply of many basic commodities, such as corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, potatoes, dairy products and meat in most modern highly agricultural countries. Poorer third-world countries that have insufficient food cannot afford to purchase these commodities.


Most U.S. agricultural producers are in a financial "holding pattern" except those who are profiting from such specialty products as organic foods, non-lactose milk and unique highly-sought-after items, such as sturgeon caviar. A growing number of marginalized agricultural producers and employees face considerable financial peril and stresses of all types.

Overall, most U.S. agricultural producers aren't headed into an economic disaster like the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, largely because they retained profits from years during the boom era that preceded the current agricultural recession, which they wisely saved or frugally used to upgrade equipment, facilities and farmland purchases.

Farming insurance also protects many producers from losses that might otherwise force disposal of assets to remain current with debt payments.

Nonetheless, many stressed farm people would benefit from an EAP like the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network.

Most legislators and voters in the upcoming election don't have a farm background and don't understand agriculture sufficiently. The major candidates in the upcoming U.S. presidential election have little background in agriculture.

Those of us in the agricultural sector have our work cut out for us to educate all candidates for elective office this fall about the connections of agriculture to stress and to effective behavioral health assistance.

Mike Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa, psychologist and farmer. To contact Rosmann go online to: .

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