Mental Health and New Work

As we ponder what work will be like post-Covid it looks like it will be much more remote, indeed Gartner reported that 74% of finance companies surveyed plan to permanently shift to more remote work post-Covid.

For some this sounds like a form of utopia away from micro-managing bosses, casual dress, no commute and flexible hours.

We should be careful what we wish for.

In the BBC article Young farmers and mental health:’We feel so isolated’, Levi Jouavel highlights the problems young farmers are having:

88% of farmers under the age of 40 rank poor mental health as the biggest problem the face today.”

This struck me as interesting. While I have heard stories about rural mental health before, I have not really spent any time thinking about it. Humans have been farmers for thousands of years so you would have thought we would have adapted to that way of life by now, so what has changed?

In the article several factors were identified:

  • Isolation with poor transport systems
  • The 24/7 nature of farming
  • Solo working
  • Perceived tough image

I think this has got worse overtime, and especially since the Second World War. During the war food was in short supply in Britain so efficiency was promoted. For many farms this was the first time they used tractors rather than horses and field size increased. After the war these trends continued. As automation increased a farmer could farm ever increasing areas of land, leading to farms being joined together leading to fewer families living in an area. Fewer people also meant fewer social events.

Increased urbanisation pushed agriculture to the edges of even fairly rural towns. In a town near me there was a farmers market in the centre of the town. This meant that on market day the town would fill with farmers and the pubs were full. Five or so years ago the market was sold and a community hospital built on the site. I’m not even sure where the market is anymore. When the market is on, it can be too far to travel into town to visit the pubs, to call in on acquaintances and to generally socialise. This marginalisation of farming, and rural life in general, mean that there is less investment in rural areas - few buses, poor postal services, slow internet. The whole environment of communication has got worse.

I even think that the loss of horses hasn’t helped; while tractors are very efficient, they are not a living breathing animal. My mother was born and raised on farms, and she remembered the last of the heavy horses her family had. Despite not being wealthy farmers, and supposedly tough men, her father and uncle kept the retired horses until they died of old age. The efficient thing, the economic thing, to do would have been to have the horses destroyed once no longer needed, but they were kept. Why? The only reason I can think of is the bond built up over years of working together; they were working partners and friends. Tractors just aren’t the same, there is not the same bond, the same company.

Automation has also lead to fewer people working on a farm. There used to be families of labourers that had worked on a farm for generations. Now farms reduce human labour to a minimum. Again leading to fewer human interactions, fewer celebrations to enjoy like marriages and births. Farming, always tough and risky, has become more of a business than a way of life.

What has this got to do with our post-Covid world?

With increased numbers of people working remotely, they too are not socialising as much as before. I am sure that future businesses will automate more of their business processes, reducing the need to communicate with as many people.

We risk becoming a nation of farmers:

  • Isolated, with reduce social events
  • Interacting with machines more than people
  • Feel we need to work 24/7

If we do not heed the warning of farmers we could be creating the conditions for a massive mental health problem in the near future as we create even more inhumane organisations.

We must be careful to ensure that our organisations become ones which enable humans to thrive and grow, not divide and crush.

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