Why is work life balance so hard

Man working

Can you do less work and make more money?

Don’t worry – I’m not going to talk you into some sort of pyramid marketing scheme, dressed up as an online business, where you make money convincing others to buy an overpriced thing they don’t need and sign-up other people to do the same.

What I am going to talk to you about is work life balance in farming, basically how to take out more time for yourself, and still run a profitable and productive farming business.

Fundamentally the long hours worked in ag businesses come down to two things; firstly, there is too much work to do, and secondly, our attitudes to work and rest. To do this topic justice, we really need to address both aspects of the issue. Whilst hours worked at some tasks can lead to higher profitability,
making money in farming is not that simple any more.

How about we go through a few things together to see if we are on the same page?

Why is there too much work to do?

There are so many reasons why there is too much work to do. Just tick (physically or mentally) the things that apply to you

  • Our agronomic practices have changed over time and we are doing more operations
  • Our livestock practices have changed and this is taking more time
  • My farm has got bigger
  • We have diversified (storing grain, carting grain, marketing differently, value adding)
  • We are more productive (more t/ha, more stock carried or produced)
  • We are contracting more
  • We are doing things we used to contract out
  • We run a dairy, feedlot or enterprise that has a high level of intensity

But there has always been a bit on!

Yes that’s often true, especially for those who live in rural areas. The non work hours are also filled with lots of things our urban cousins may not have to consider to the same degree. Just tick any of the following things that are a part of your life

  • Travel time – for work, for fun, for everything!
  • Social responsibilities – caring for neighbours and friends, helping out others in difficult situations, attending funerals. The smaller the community, often the bigger the responsibility.
  • Community responsibilities including committees, events, participating and volunteering
  • Family responsibilities especially those with kids that make rep teams, those with lots of kids or kids with special needs. Grandparents who look after grandkids can give this box a tick too!
  • Local emergencies, fire fighting, floods etc
  • Caring responsibilities of older generations or someone with a disability– in rural areas there might be less services and the farming family might be the only family that lives locally.
  • Domestic responsibilities to do with running a household have to be managed by the household, like rubbish collection, water issues, minor trade jobs and handyman tasks.

Why is there less time to do it in?

Perhaps life has changed, as well as farming. Which of these apply to you.

  • I have more family responsibilities now than I did 5-10 years ago
  • I am getting older and can’t work as many hours
  • Someone in my team is older and can’t work as many hours
  • My team has got smaller (even if your team is your 12 or 18 year old side kick that is no longer at home full time)
  • Me or someone in my family is working more off farm

Are there a few ticks there? Are some things worth a double tick?

So, if we can agree you have too much on, what is the next question.

How can we get just as much done, in the less time?

This is the tricky bit, because it is about facing up to productivity and organisation.

A few more boxes for you, be honest

  • I am better at what I do now, than when I had less experience
  • I have a plan for this week and next
  • Others on my team know my plan, and their plan
  • When I go to find something, it is always where I am looking for it
  • If there is a pocket of down time, I can quickly work out the best way to fill it
  • Things don’t accidentally get done twice
  • Things don’t accidentally get forgotten altogether
  • We rarely have breakdowns as a result of poor maintenance
  • We never have accidents related to operator fatigue
  • We only very occasionally have stock get out
  • There are no animal health issues related to things not being done on time
  • There is never a mad last-minute rush to get things for regular foreseeable jobs (shed supplies, chem, fuel, tags, animal health products)
  • We rarely run out of things we need mid job (shed supplies, chem, fuel, tags, animal health products)
  • When I ring to book a contractor/service or order a product, I do it early and they normally can fit me in.

If you don’t have lots of ticks, where do you start? Take a minute to focus on where the ticks are, what is it you are doing well?

Chances are, implementing some of the same strategies that are already working for you, has more chance of being successful than someone else’s strategy.

If you don’t sit down weekly to plan, its often a good place to start.

Do we really have enough resources to get the job done?

A lot of people struggle with work life balance because there is more work (and life) than there are hours to do it in.

It would be easy if there was neat series of check boxes for this one that said you need XX hours per arable ha of cropping area and XX hours per DSE. It’s not like that really. All farming businesses are different. In cropping enterprises, machinery plays a big part. As does how much R&M we do in house vs outsource. Newer gear may be more reliable and have less breakdowns than older machinery.

Some livestock enterprises are high intensity, others less so. Good infrastructure can lead to higher efficiency. Contracting work and off farm work all play a part. If you have to travel between farms, that takes time. Farms with more automation can be run with less labour hours.

If you have had some changes in your farm business over the last 5 years, you might find that there was a lot of time, but now there is not. Dryer years often demand less hours per hectare for cropping enterprises in an operational sense, so a few dry years can often shield farm business from the reality of the labour needs of their business. Other enterprises are impacted in different way. Livestock take more time to manage through and out of drought, however being understocked can be less time consuming than full stocking rates.

What you need to establish is the labour requirement for your business.

Take a few hours to plan out your year, perhaps in a yearly planner, or a free calendar the bank or stock agent has given you. Use highlighters to outline the operational calendar, sowing, spraying, spreading, harvest and any livestock priorities. Rather than focus on the time these activities take (eg we can do XXX ha a day/total ha = days, look at how many work days the operation has taken in the past) Add in holidays, weekends away, time for maintenance etc.

Farmers are by nature fairly optimistic people. This sense of optimism sometimes flows over into underestimating the likelihood of something going wrong and the time it might take to make it right. Factor things going wrong into your estimations of time as well as the predictable and unpredictable family and life factors above.

What does this exercise tell you?

I bet that there are not enough hours in the day, or days in the year.

So on to the next question

How do we add in more resources or reduce the work?

A few of these things are revenue neutral, or close to revenue neutral. Which could work for you?

  • Improve organisation
  • Increase rest time to reduce errors and rework
  • Plan maintenance activities to reduce unplanned breakdowns or issues
  • Upskill the staff you have to increase autonomy and efficiency
  • Delegate more responsibilities to the staff you have
  • Use contractors
  • Outsource office work
  • Automate office work
  • Increasing capacity of machinery (do your numbers, adding staff might be cheaper)
  • Increasing load capacity of trucks by adding trailers or increasing permissible loads (do your numbers, adding staff might be cheaper)
  • Getting things delivered, rather than picking them up
  • Eliminate or streamline secondary enterprises
  • Outsource domestic tasks (cleaning, household repairs, maintenance, car pool kids transport)
  • Put on more staff – move beyond notions of trying to recruit a full-time person with exactly the same skill set as you, also consider finding someone with different strengths and be open to short term contracts, part time, profit share or casual arrangements.

Is our attitude to work getting in the way of rest and play?

Great, so you have increased your efficiency, got more help and things are going to be better. But only if you choose to dedicate those hours to rest and play, not if you just decide to work even more.

Australia and rural Australia in particular, honours the worker. Especially those who work physically hard. At Ariah Park NSW, there is a bronze statue of a wheat lumper, not a politician or a founding father. A little further away in Hay NSW there is the Shearers Hall of Fame recognising a job that is incredibly hard. This is a cultural phenomenon that is not universal, those that work physically long and hard in some cultures are looked down upon.

Hard work is good, until it is not.

Like anything good, taken to the extreme, hard work (or long hours working physically or mentally in the business) can cause problems.

Like most farm inputs, there is an ideal rate of application of our own hours, and a declining return on investment for our hours as an individual. Just like urea, if we don’t put enough on, we don’t take advantage of the opportunities we have, if we put too much on, we don’t get as good a financial return, and if we put a lot too much on, we get a toxic result.

The toxic impact of too much work on our business can be in poor decision making, accidents, injuries, rework and the inability to appropriately prioritise and plan work and activities. Basically, the tired brain is sub-standard, and if you are always tired, you probably don’t even realise.

The toxic impact of too much work on ourselves and our families can be seen in how we talk to and relate to those we love. It can be seen in relationships, our children, our children’s attitudes toward farming and our health.

Despite the toxicity, the glorification of long hours remains. It takes courage to run your own race in this regard, but just ponder for a moment some of the stories that might be circulating around in your head.

Things you might be saying to yourself, or thinkingAnother way to think or something else to say to yourself
The more I work, the more money I make or saveIf I am selling hours of my life, I reach the limit fairly quickly. If I make good decisions, the money I make is not limited.    
The more I work, the better I provide for my family, and the better father/mother/spouse I am.My loved ones need me for lots of reasons, not just for my role as a provider. We need to talk about what we all value. Time together having fun is important.  
Doing it myself will be cheaper  Doing it myself may be cheaper, or it may not. I will take some time to work out what the real cost will be, taking into account my time, my skills, and the other things that need doing that won’t get done. Then I will make the decision.  
The more I work, the better protected my family will be, should something happen to me or the farmProtecting my family is important. I do this by working, and by taking care of my health, by making safe choices and by being appropriately insured.  
I and my family have always worked long hours, and that is why we are successful.  We have always worked long hours and that has got us to where we are.  It might not get me to where I want to go now. I betray no ancestor, living or dead, by making the best choices for me and my family today.
No one else can do this job the way I want it to be done.I can’t expect anyone to read my mind. If I want this job to be done in a specific way, I have to clearly explain this, and check that they understand, even if this feels uncomfortable.  
They are amazing, they are always working.They are always working  

It’s easy for a few busy years to push us into a season of our lives where we are working more than we would like. A concerted effort to re organise work and to make sure we have enough hands on deck to get the job done normally fixes the problem.

For some it does not. Some people actually have an issue taking time off, or switching off when they are not physically working. Potentially they could be considered workaholics. Farms are terrible places for people like this, you live at their workplace, you have no boss to tell you to knock off and when you own your own business it’s easy to kid yourself into thinking that you will make more money by working longer hours.

Have a read of this article


If this is you and it is causing problems in your relationships or for your health you possibly need to talk to a professional about it. They often have some great ways of helping.

Whilst talking to a professional might be a modern way of dealing with workaholic tendencies, I don’t think that this is a new issue in agriculture, or for humanity.

Clear boundaries around work time and non-work time are often the best way to deal with those that work compulsively. Many religions that had their basis in agrarian communities have a mandated rest day, the Sabbath for Jews, Sunday for Christians and Friday for Muslims. Buddhists have a few data a month based on a lunar calendar called Upostha where more time meditating is prescribed.

Feel free to convert to whatever religion you like, if you think it will help. Alternatively, you could think about having a set day off each week (it could be seasonal such as Saturday in winter for footy and Sunday in summer for skiing). Your boundaries could also include not talking about farm issue or taking farm calls after a certain time in the day, and not talking about farm things in the bedroom or at family functions.

How can rest and play make us more productive?

Recovery is just as important as work, especially when the hours are sometimes long and unpredictable. The best athletes are not the ones that train the hardest, they are the ones that dedicate time to their recovery.

Sports scientist turned corporate coach Andrew May talks a lot about this in his book MatchFit (2010). You can download a chapter here. https://www.andrewmay.com/matchfit/ He explains that “top level athletes invest as much (sometimes more) time and money on rest, recovery and quality sleep as they do on training and competition” He recommends an annual recovery plan. The holidays and mini breaks are probably familiar to all of us, but he also recommends wind down activities most weeks and sleep!

The recommends 300 nights a year of restorative sleep. Basically that’s 42 weeks of the year of getting to bed on time, and waking up feeling refreshed. If you take out the periods of the seasonal peak times in your industry, how many weeks are you left with? Go back to your annual calendar you prepared earlier and work out how many weeks in the year you could count on fitting in time for relaxation each day and a good nights sleep.

If you think you need to make some changes, where do you start?

Get out a pen and write down three things to give a go, just three. Discuss them with your family or team members and make them happen. Then make a note in your calendar or diary to have a read of this article again in three months and choose another three.

Let me know how you go.

To print out a copy of the article, so you can fill in the tick boxes or leave it around for someone to read, click here

Share the love

Whant more?

Subscribe to my newsletter

for more in depth info on everything Agrifocused