The psychological impact of being furloughed

8.7 million jobs have been furloughed (HMRC, May). This shows in stark terms the scale of the economic shutdown in Britain and the substantial economic cost that may follow.

But what about the human cost and the emotional cost for the individual? Kate Cooper, Head of Research, Policy & Standards at The Institute of Leadership & Management’s refers to being furloughed as “a rejection”.

A senior ex-colleague, now friend of mine furloughed half of his team at the beginning of lockdown. His choice was determined by both the workload within the team and the personal circumstances of each member of staff. The latter was crucial in determining their ability to work given the new challenges of remote working. He saw the whole person, both their work life and personal life, looking at the other pulls and stresses that they would be experiencing. We bring our whole selves to work, bringing home stress to work, and work stress back home. In lockdown there isn’t even a threshold to cross, no physical boundary between the two. When my friend decided to furlough his senior manager she was upset, feeling she had been marked as dispensable, and she began to question the security of her job. Danny Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee from 2006-2009, has predicted that many of those who are furloughed could well be unemployed following the crisis, pushing unemployment to around 20 percent. This would be five times above the current official rate of four percent, according to data collected in February. As well as feeling rejected, perhaps she was also predicting she would be part of that statistic.

Fast forward 10 weeks, she thanks her boss. As a mother with two young children, she is grateful for the time she has had managing extra childcare duties and home schooling rather than keeping up with her job. He saw the whole person not just an employee, and probably both she and the business benefited from his foresight.

For others, being furloughed has brought a moment of pause and reflection, an opportunity to think about what they really want in life. The amazing weather has given some the chance to sunbathe, light up the BBQ, do the garden, fix up the house and just generally kick back and enjoy the extra time. However, in Furlough Fear: Understanding the Experience of Furloughed Staff, Woodcock reveals that it’s only 21% of respondents who align themselves with the statement: “Now I am furloughed, I feel okay and have no concerns.”

The figures are significantly higher when the statement is reframed to account for issues such as loss of purpose (55%), loss of routine (59%), loss of connection with one’s firm (63%) and fear of future redundancy (81%). (Woodcock, 20 May 2020)

For many the psychological impact of being furloughed has been negative. We have an implicit psychological contract with our employer and during lockdown without regular contact from your manager connecting you to the business, this may be damaged. This can result in a loss of trust, creating feelings of uncertainty and anxiety that then turns into more worry, causing a vicious emotional cycle. We feel a lack of control, that we are powerless which again activates more worry and a sense of unfairness – why me?

Trust with our employer and specifically our manager is crucial to our wellbeing, productivity and discretionary effort at work. How we feel when we return to work may be significantly impacted by the connection we did or didn’t have during lockdown.

Employment is a key driver of wellbeing. It provides financial security and routine. But a good job also provides purpose, identity, support and social connection. Those who have been furloughed may feel excluded, awakening feelings suggestive of threat and social pain, which when activated in the brain is akin to physical pain. Where once you were accepted and had an identity, you are now excluded and have lost status. Epidemiologist, Michael Marmot found in his Whitehall study in 2004 that people with higher status have better health, are happier and live longer.

This is serious stuff with real consequences.

The importance of protecting and promoting employee wellbeing starts to come into sharp focus. How can employers and leaders ensure they have a workforce ready to come back to work?

Open and supportive conversations go a long way in keeping colleagues feeling connected. Through transparent dialogue the senior manager with two young children realised that her boss had understood her circumstances when making his choice about who was furloughed. Leaders must also empathise with their employee’s potential feeling of rejection and, as far as possible, take positive steps to address that.

If employers are able to positively affect the psychological wellbeing of all employees, furloughed or not, evidence tells us that not only does productivity increase, but that employees perceive their workload as less stressful, resulting in less attrition.

Whilst we may be seeing some restrictions lifted, we know there is a long way to go yet and the wellbeing of employees should still be a priority. We’re moving into unprecedented times in which resilience will be key. It’s critical to not just future proof your business, but to future proof your people too.

People will forget what you did, forget what you said, but not how you made them feel.

Eileen Donnelly



Twitter: @eileendonnelly

Please note, this content is not produced by the IoD and therefore does not necessarily represent the views or thoughts of the organisation.

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