A study carried out by the University of Exeter has found “concerning” levels of anxiety among women in the agriculture sector.

The study, published in the Journal of Agromedicine and carried out by Dr. Rebecca Wheeler and Prof. Matt Lobley from the university, was funded by the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institute (RABI).

Wheeler said the study revealed high levels of anxiety in women in the sector, with 23% of 3,487 female respondents experiencing anxiety and 34.6% experiencing mild anxiety.

The study surveyed a total of 15,296 members of the agricultural community and researchers used standardised instruments to assess mental health and wellbeing, including the Generalised Anxiety Disorder-7 scale (GAD-7).

The factors found to have the strongest relationship with moderate and severe anxiety in women in agriculture were:

  • Concerns about the future of the farm/farming;
  • Financial pressures;
  • Workload;
  • Isolation;
  • Relationships with family.

“There are clear associations between anxiety, stress and loneliness and, although we cannot ascertain causality, these point to issues that demand attention in efforts to improve mental health,” Wheeler said.

Prof. Lobley said more needs to be done than addressing the symptoms of mental health problems and focus should be shifted to reducing stressors in the sector.

“Addressing only the symptoms of mental health problems will be insufficient, and there is a need to reduce some of the stressors commonly affecting farm women by, for instance, providing greater business-related support and seeking opportunities to help farm women build and maintain stronger social relationships,” he said.

Farming stressors

The study found that levels of loneliness were highest among women aged 25 to 34 and that this level was also “markedly higher” than equivalent levels in the wider population.

Researchers said working-aged women appeared more likely to be stressed by feeling isolated, family relationships and workload, than older women – all factors that were also identified as most strongly associated with moderate/severe anxiety.

“It is easy to imagine how any confluence of strained family relationships, long working hours, and feeling isolated might be associated with a person also feeling lonely and/or anxious,” Wheeler said.

“The addition of numerous other common farming stressors – many of which concern factors lying outside the control of individual farmers and farming families – can only add to this burden.”

Younger women were shown to be more stressed by financial pressures, and to a lesser extent concerns surrounding the future of the farm/farming, than older women.

Half of those aged between 25 and 44 said they were stressed quite a lot, or to a large extent, by financial pressures.

Researchers said there was a “statistically significant association” between anxiety levels and how often respondents said they felt lonely.

64.5% of those who were often or always lonely were classified as having moderate/severe anxiety, compared to just 7.4% of those who were never lonely.