The twin challenges of Brexit and Covid have already wrought a significant financial cost on food supply chains.
But while companies have lost millions of pounds in dealing with the pandemic and post-Brexit trade disruption, are we now on the cusp of an even bigger crisis when it comes to mental health?
Whether it’s farmers and fishing crews, factory and supermarket workers or even hauliers, the past year has been full of stories about the struggles workers have faced.
From regular factory-based Covid outbreaks and enforced self-isolation to shopworkers facing abuse and hauliers despairing at long delays at the border, keeping food on shelves has never been as challenging.
And as a result of these challenges, food and drink ranked among the most at-risk sectors to burnout, claimed research published this month by Cheshire-based residential rehab centre Delamere.
The study, based on data from sources including the ONS and Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, revealed that workers in agriculture and fisheries typically worked an eye-watering 48 hours per week.
At 38% higher than the latest reported average for British full-time workers [ONS January 2021] the two sectors worked for longer than any other industry in the UK, with working hours also rising by 8.1% in 2020 – higher than any other sector.
Those working in manufacturing, retail and transport were also in the top 15 industries at risk of burnout, the research found.
The food industry is now (slowly) waking up to this growing human cost.
Although the FDF told The Grocer the threat of burnout wasn’t something its members had particularly flagged up, the fishing sector was far more equivocal.
“The past year has been particularly challenging for the seafood supply chain,” said Aoife Martin, director of operations at industry body Seafish, which runs the secretariat for the Fishermen’s Welfare Alliance.
Many often family-owned businesses had been “on the frontline in the face of the pandemic and adjustments due to Brexit”, she added.
“There have been a lot of businesses where people have had to change the way they work in challenging conditions and there is a real human welfare issue with livelihoods being affected.”
NFU deputy president Stuart Roberts agreed, adding the past 12 months had reinforced how important it was to “ensure we are keeping safe on farm and looking after our mental health”.
“I would encourage anyone in farming who feels stressed or under strain to reach out to friends or family or, if necessary, contact one of the farming charities such as the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution or the Farming Community Network (FCN), who can help provide expert care and advice,” he added.
“We can all play a role ourselves too by picking up the phone and reaching out to someone, something I have tried to do more over the past few weeks.”
With that in mind, Martin said Seafish was about to start work on a project looking at how the seafood sector had reacted to the pandemic, with a particular emphasis on mental health.
Seafood businesses will hope the government’s much-derided fisheries bailout fund, extended last weekend, will also be able to help.
Elsewhere, to mark the FCN’s Farming Help Awareness Week this week, a group of agricultural charities will be using social media to highlight mental health issues.
This week also saw the University of Reading launch a new project – backed by £190,000 in funding from the Economic and Social Research Council – to understand how the coronavirus has affected agricultural workers and their resilience to mental ill-health.
The issue was a “serious problem”, it said, citing research from the Farm Safety Foundation that found over 80% of agriculture sector workers under the age of 40 believed poor mental health was “the biggest hidden problem that they and their peers face today”.
The findings will be used to formulate a policy paper for Defra that will allow it to consider how to support farmers and their communities in any future crises.
“Working long hours in a stressful job and often in isolation, we already know that farmers’ mental health and wellbeing is a major challenge,” said research lead Dr David Rose.
It may currently be less clear how factory and retail workers have fared, but the work planned for fishing and farming at least shows some progress is being made.
What is clear, however, is that if the sector doesn’t deal with the mental health issues faced by many of its workers after such an extraordinarily challenging 12 months, it will just be storing up more problems further down the track.