When Chancellor Rishi Sunak catapulted the word furlough back into popular British lexicon in March 2020, it raised a lot of eyebrows. What did it mean and, more importantly, how was it going to impact the nation?
What to some sounded like a novel idea to deal with a natural phenomenon, this being the first time many young workers had heard of the concept of furloughing, was sadly a lot more sobering. As the world came to a grinding halt, millions were backed into taking a leave of paid absence from their employment. And while for some that might have sounded like a breath of fresh air, the uncertainty of future job security twinned with a super-spreading, volatile pandemic sparked a wave of fresh anxieties.
As of June 2021, it was reported that over 11.6 million people in the UK have had their jobs supported by the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) in the last 16 months, with employers nationwide scrabbling to obtain up to 80 per cent of employees’ salaries from the government to avoid mass job cuts.
But the job retention scheme has had its limitations. Even with it in place, the repetition of long-term closures and unpredictable lockdowns has resulted in the worst jobs market in decades for young people trying to get their foot on the career ladder.
Almost 80 per cent of the jobs lost in the past year occurred to people under 35, with hospitality being the worst affected sector. Furlough was meant to be a three-month-long financial safety net; now, it’s scheduled to come to an untimely close by the 30th of September, while the cumulative effects of an upturned economy are still in full swing. So, where does that leave the whopping 1.6 million people who are still on furlough across the country?
“I had to change my career to find job security,” says Bella* from London. Although she was technically furloughed from her job in hospitality and events for over a year, the 24-year-old was still expected to work full-time. “My boss was trying to claim any grant money he could, it was very shady,” she says. “Not only was there no structure, but staff were made to come on-site when they were supposed to be isolating.”
Picking up a second job at a deli on weekends, Bella was juggling a seven-day working week just to top-up her “ridiculously low” salary. “When I finally handed in my one-month notice, things went really sour with my boss,” she says. “He said he wouldn’t have kept me on furlough if he knew I was going to leave because he’d been paying PAYE. Then he took my keys, became verbally aggressive and didn’t send me my P60 for two months, which affected my tax deductions in my new job.”
Since the Coronavirus outbreak began the Citizens Advice hotline has been ringing off the hook, offering guidance to over two million people like Bella who have sought professional career support. Offering advice on everything from battling bad bosses or juggling debt to rumbling government guideline confusion, its online Covid resources have since been viewed over 62 million times. “The traffic particularly spiked in spring last year and has mostly tapered since,” says spokesperson Ruth Moore. “We found the proportion of women and younger people seeking our help rose at the start of the pandemic, with corresponding falls in men and older people. This pattern has remained constant throughout the year.”
Bella* isn’t the only one who was illegally pressured into working while on furlough. More businesses than you might expect took advantage – and then some – of the CJRS scheme. Jake* was working in the music industry at the start of the pandemic. Not only were all staff expected to continue with their daily tasks as usual at his company, but they were also singled out if they didn’t comply.
“The fear was that if you said anything or reported your case to somewhere like Citizens Advice, you might lose your job or put other people’s employment in jeopardy.” While he was furloughed for four months, the 30-year-old began to grow resentful of working full-time hours and made a point of missing a few meetings. “The nature of the job meant completely stopping work was impossible, but I think more could have been done by the company to understand the financial and mental health impact the working conditions had on the staff,” he says.
As gigs and live venues closed their doors, it wasn’t long before Jake was out of employment. “I was let go in May 2020. Initially, it was exhilarating to have a break as I’ve been working since I was a teenager,” he says “However, once I began struggling to find employment in the same industry, my mental health really took a downward turn and I ended up feeling depressed.” Starting therapy at the end of last year was the first step to understanding the root cause of his depression. “It took me until March 2021 to get back on my feet. I am still trying to climb out of the financial hole I got into over the past year, but I’m making positive steps in the food and drinks industry.”
When you’re wrestling with sleepless nights, unable to confide in your mates or family who would just get it, it’s hard to know who to offload your worries to. Fortunately, mental health charities like Mind have been offering vital support for people’s wellbeing during the furlough period. And unlike Citizens Advice, they won’t dob you in to your boss.
“The ongoing pandemic and the possibility of job insecurity can make the future feel very uncertain,” says Emma Mamo, Mind’s Head of Workplace Wellbeing. “There is a link between issues of financial and job insecurity with mental health problems, so the prospect of unemployment can certainly have a negative effect on how we feel. For some, this effect may be small, but for others, particularly those with existing mental health problems, it can be severe. It’s good to remember that it’s OK to have turbulent emotions.”
Serena* was furloughed not once, but twice over the past year. “As a bespoke tailor working in retail, I was initially off work for three and a half months during the first lockdown, then four and a half months during the third lockdown,” she says. During this time, the 33-year-old found it imperative to keep occupied. “I started by exercising a lot, going on walks when I could, watching every series available on Netflix, renovating my kitchen. Anything to keep busy!
“I was very up and down in my mental health,” she continues. “My mind is in a better place when I have structure and purpose. I found initially my anxiety skyrocketed to a level I hadn’t experienced before and that was scary.”
It’s easier said than done, but Mamo says that it’s important to challenge unkind thoughts about yourself and stop comparing yourself to others to alleviate job anxiety. “Try to say positive things to yourself, even if it feels weird at first,” she says.
Hypothetically, if furlough was to continue and we were yet again hit with long empty stretches of time to fill, there’s no better coping mechanism than jumping into a new hobby – banana bread, knitting, whatever gets you going. “Get to know what makes you happy and gives you fulfilment outside work – whether it’s a new challenge like learning to paint or cook – and set yourself little goals to help you focus and make progress,” Mamo says.
Job worries and mental health issues aside, furlough has also given those affected the time to think about what’s important. “Now, I have a lot more drive to do the things I like and spend time with the people I love,” says Serena.
And whether you’re a victim of mistreatment in the workplace or are worried about how to stay financially afloat, make sure you don’t suffer in silence.
“With all mental health struggles, having a good support network around you is really important,” says Mamo. “If you’re struggling with feelings of uncertainty and anticipation, try to focus on things that you can control, like getting your CV ready, just in case you need it.”
You can find support through online peer-support networks, like Mind’s Side by Side, or Mind’s Infoline (0300 123 3393) for more information and advice
* names have been changed to protect identity
Mind’s seven wellness tips for people still on furlough
1. Establish a routine
Your employer may be able to help you to create a routine action plan to plan your time while on furlough. This can help you to identify any personal or professional goals that you may want to focus on while furloughed and steps you can take to stay well.
2. Talk to colleagues
It is important to keep in regular contact with your colleagues, whether they are also furloughed or not. With 60 per cent of people saying that loneliness is currently making their mental health worse, keeping in touch with your colleagues will help you feel more connected and less isolated
3. Create shared goals
Consider teaming up with your workmates to achieve shared goals. This can give you something to work towards and help create a sense of community with your colleagues, as well as providing some fun to occupy your time. Think about setting a creative or physical challenge or starting a virtual book or film club.
4. Create a budget
Consider creating a budget, particularly if being furloughed means you have taken a cut in pay. Financial concerns can seriously affect your mental health, so a budget will help you to manage both your money and your wellbeing. Organisations like the Money Advice Service can help you with this. Also make sure to check if you can access any other financial assistance, such as an interest-free overdraft or a mortgage, loan or credit card holiday.
5. Look at your personal development
Doing online training to achieve personal or professional goals could help you to feel more motivated and boost your self-esteem. For personal development, there are tutorials on YouTube, the government’s The Skills Toolkit website for free digital and numeracy courses, and hundreds of free courses offered by the Open University.
Volunteering to help your community during this difficult time can also help you develop skills and experience while giving you a sense of purpose. The NCVO has put together this guide to volunteering during the coronavirus outbreak.
6. Seek support from your employer
Your employer can help you stay connected to the organisation and support your wellbeing while you are furloughed. Consider asking about regular one-to-one wellbeing check-ins, ideally via video calls and virtual team catch-ups, as well as updates on any company developments and your manager’s availability to discuss any work-related concerns you may have about the current situation and the future.
7. Seek support from other areas
If you have developed a routine action plan, you may want to share this with friends, family and workmates who can provide support when you need it. If you find yourself struggling and your company has an employee assistance programme (EAP), remember that this will remain available to support you while you are furloughed. If your employer does not offer an EAP service, contact the Mind Infoline who can direct you to local support services.