About 15 years ago, I was sitting in a classroom at Royal Roads University on Vancouver Island when the professor said something that shifted my priorities.
Bev McPhee was the professor who changed how I saw things. McPhee had a lot of experience in the corporate world, and her insights were very welcome to those of us working on our grad degrees in communications. I can’t recall what the course was called, but it was geared towards people who wanted to consult.
McPhee always seemed like a warm and generous person, especially with her students. I really appreciated that warmth because it helped offset some of the stress (most of us were working and in school full-time, which was good experience but intense in every way). She also had a real knack for using stories to illustrate her point, almost like Aesop’s Fables, and several of them have stuck with me.
But that day the lesson was embedded in a question.
“What is your most important asset?” she asked.
The class tossed around the answers you might expect: adaptability, work ethic, experience, creative thinking, etc.… I don’t think any of us hit on the right one. Finally, McPhee told us that our most important asset is our health.
At first blush, it sounds simple, but sometimes the most important insights seem like they should be common sense. As self-employed people, we would not have sick days. We would hopefully have some sort of disability insurance, but depending on disability insurance for a long time isn’t a desirable outcome. Even if a person is employed with great benefits, no one wants to be sick or incapacitated all the time. It’s a lesson that’s been reinforced by a personal experience (concussion), and by watching friends endure tough situations.
Of course, like all seemingly simple concepts, applying it in real life isn’t all that simple. For one thing, we can’t control our own genetics or everything that happens to us.
But, like everything else, there are things we can control or at least influence. We can think of health as a three-legged stool, with physical, mental and relational health each forming a leg. Not every leg needs to be completely uniform, but we need all three legs in place to stay upright.
We can then break our actions into maintenance activities and risk management strategies. Maintenance activities could include regular exercise and eating well for physical health or a coffee with a friend or colleague to nourish social connections and mental well-being. Risk management might be deciding whether you’re likely to get run over by a cow as you tag a newborn calf and plan accordingly. On the mental health side, for someone overcoming an addiction, it might mean avoiding situations with alcohol or having a strategy to deal with them.
If you are wondering what any of this has to do with farming and ranching, I say, “Everything.” The secret to an operation’s success isn’t just about how people are using technology or managing winter feeding or marketing their calves. It’s grounded in how the people on that operation work together and make decisions, and being healthy makes all those decisions and all that work more manageable.
Given the lockdowns and everything else that is going on with the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining all those aspects of our health is tough, to say the least. No doubt many of us are struggling with our mental health, to some degree or another. Personally, I felt very stressed last spring when we got hammered with the first lockdown. I’ve also felt down about the state of affairs at times, but I’ve experienced much worse melancholy in the past, and have learned how to break that cycle. I write this not to garner sympathy or attention, but just to say if you’ve felt down or stressed during this pandemic, or at any point in your life, I hear ya.
As we start a new year, more of our health focus is going to remain on the risk management side, and mostly on trying to avoid catching COVID-19. None of us can say for sure how sick we would get if we caught the plague. We know there are underlying conditions that increase the risk, including conditions common to every age group such as asthma and diabetes. In my (non-expert) opinion, COVID-19 is a risk worth managing.
I know some people don’t believe COVID-19 exists, or still think that it’s no worse than the flu (although the flu isn’t anything to sniff at, either, in my opinion). Everyone has a right to their own opinion and information sources. However, if you’re getting all your COVID-19 info from social media, ask yourself whether you’d let someone with no experience or background in cattle advise you on your herd vaccination strategy.
The tough thing, of course, is that managing COVID-19-related risks means taking a hit in other areas. On top of everything else, the ripple effects, such as the pressure our cattle feeders have been under, add financial stress for many. Most of us are in some sort lockdown as I write this, and that is not great for anyone’s relational or mental well-being (and for some, the consequences are severe). I wish I had a brilliant answer for how we could balance everything, but I don’t. I do think that things will get better over the next several months. We all just have to do the best we can, and focus on where we have influence.
As we start a new year, it’s a good time to manage any risks that could topple you and make sure all three legs of your stool are still on the ground, even if they’re a little wobbly. Seek help if you need it. If your neighbour looks like they might tip over, lend a helping hand.
Wherever you are, I wish you and your families all the best in the new year.