Manage your wellbeing during a frenetic harvest

Preparing physically and mentally for intense work periods where stress and fatigue can build up provides you, and those around you, with the best chance to work effectively until the task is complete

Photo of on-farm machinery

PHOTO: Brad Collis

The stress of harvest – often a race against the clock and the weather – can have a debilitating effect on people’s physical and emotional resilience. Stress impairs judgement and the ability to concentrate and maintain a clear decision-making process. This occurs in many industries and professions, but growers have the added responsibility of also safely operating heavy, fast-moving machinery.

The key to handling the pressure points is preparation and planning.

It is unlikely the pressures at harvest time will ever change so it is worth understanding how you react to pressure situations and develop ways to mitigate the stress. The stress itself may not disappear, but you will be better equipped to manage.

If you treat a pressure job, such as harvesting, as a campaign then the starting point is to try to enter the fray with cleared decks: reconciling, for example, family or other business issues before heading out to work for the day.


What are the risks associated with fatigue?

Short-term effects on an individual include impaired work performance, such as the reduced ability to:

  • concentrate and avoid distraction;
  • think laterally and analytically;
  • make decisions;
  • recall events and their sequences;
  • maintain vigilance;
  • control emotions;
  • appreciate complex situations;
  • recognise risks;
  • coordinate hand–eye movements; and 
  • communicate effectively.

This can lead to:

  • an increase in error rates;
  • slow reaction times;
  • an increase in the the likelihood of accidents and injuries; and 
  • the occurance of micro-sleeps.

Long-term effects on health that are associated with chronic sleep loss may include:

  • heart disease;
  • diabetes;
  • high blood pressure;
  • gastrointestinal disorders;
  • depression; and
  • anxiety.

SOURCE: WorkSafe Victoria

Fatigue is more than feeling tired or drowsy. It is an acute and/or ongoing state of tiredness that leads to mental or physical exhaustion.

  • Seventeen hours of sustained sleeplessness leads to a level of impairment comparable to 0.05 per cent blood alcohol content. Being awake for 20 hours impairs performance to the same level as having a 0.1 blood alcohol content.
  • After 18 days of prolonged wakefulness, research has shown that a person can experience hallucinations, paranoia, blurred vision, slurred speech, and memory and concentration lapses.
  • Older growers who need only about six hours of sleep per night, but reduce this to five hours for a two-week period may increase their risk of accidents by more than 10 times.


During busy periods when you know that your sleep will be disturbed try to incorporate some relaxation, breathing or meditation techniques. Refrain from vigorous exercise in the evening and take the time to consciously relax before going to bed.

Waking between 1am and 3am can indicate low blood-sugar levels, which can contribute to disturbed sleep. Having a healthy snack before bed can help support the body’s night-time energy reserves. A small snack should be one or two bites of food that contains protein, unrefined carbohydrate and high-quality fat. For example, half a slice of wholegrain toast with peanut butter or a slice of cheese on a wholegrain cracker.

Sugary, refined foods and drinks will aggravate poor sleeping habits.

Quality sleep actually ranks high with diet and regular exercise as an essential component of health.

Sleeping tips

  • During normal awake hours, powernaps of more than 10 minutes can improve alertness and mood.
  • Eat right, maintain blood-sugar levels and eat low-fat, high-protein food, which can help you sleep better and feel more rested. Resist the urge to binge on sugary or high-fat snack foods.
  • Make a serious effort to go into harvest with proper sleep. Along with this, a physically fit body responds better under stress.
  • Take a break. Do not be afraid to take a mini-break during the busy time (four days maximum). Longer breaks are a must during quieter times of the year. They should be longer than four days and are recommended at least two to three times per year.


There are three ‘brain rules’ that you can focus on to build resilience, particularly during busy periods: concentration, certainty and staying calm under pressure.

To effectively tackle tasks that require serious thinking, you must develop a disciplined habit of removing distractions: 

  • you can multitask, but only on routine activities;
  • when you are dealing with non-routine, new or potentially dangerous work, you must remove all distractions and concentrate on the task at hand;
  • you must establish work habits that are followed; and
  • the brain can concentrate on something for somewhere between 45 and 90 minutes, no more, so focus on these periods of time.

The brain, particularly when tired or stressed, loves certainty. It recognises ‘uncertainty’ as a threat, so reduce or remove uncertainty from your routine, activities and schedules.

Certainty is important for those around you as well, so make sure you give clear instructions to staff, contractors and others. This helps everyone develop certainty about the expected outcomes, and the what, when, where and how:

  • spell out what is going to happen;
  • give people direction;
  • give yourself a map;
  • use a to-do list; and
  • give over some control.

To stay calm under pressure you need to get above the drama, detail and emotion and focus on the outcome.

More information:

Dennis Hoiberg, 0418 384 619,


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