The furlough scheme has protected more than 11 million jobs since the pandemic began, and four million workers were on furlough at the end of March.
For some, being on furlough has been a welcome break from the daily grind. But for others, being out of work hasn’t been a holiday. People have had to look after children, care for relatives and some have found it psychologically difficult to adjust to not working, particularly those on long-term furlough.
“Our careers significantly shape our wellbeing,” says Sarah Taylor Phillips, career coach and founder of Career Voyage. “Many employees will be in a reactive mindset while on furlough - they are waiting for their employer to tell them what the next move is. This can leave employees feeling out of control and that their future is in someone else's hands.”
Mental health tends to deteriorate when people lose their sense of social purpose. Our work makes up a big part of our identity and losing that work, even temporarily, can lead us questioning who we are.
“We get several things from our jobs that are central to our confidence - feedback, a sense of achievement, social interactions, financial rewards and reaching goals,” Phillips explains. “The common factor throughout this is communication. Even informal communication such as the watercooler chats gives people a sense of belonging lost when away from the workplace.”
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Loneliness has been a major problem amid the pandemic, but it can be particularly difficult for those out of work or working from home. Chatting to colleagues, going for lunch and after-work drinks make up an important part of our social lives. Not only may furloughed individuals lose touch with friends, they may feel cut off from their normal support networks. And it’s easy to dwell on the future when you have fewer distractions such as work.
“Being away from the office also makes communication more difficult. If employers are not regularly keeping furloughed staff up to date with the position of the business, this can lead to speculation and negative thoughts,” says Phillips. “Furthermore, employees who are on a reduced salary have the added stress of meeting their financial commitments right now and in the future.”
Being on long-term furlough may also have a “scarring effect” on people’s careers. Although people on furlough have financial support and can potentially get back into work through their current employer, they may still face challenges as they have missed out in terms of skills development and earnings growth, according to a recent report by the Resolution Foundation.
So if you are struggling on long-term furlough, what can you do? “Try to be proactive rather than reactive. If you haven't had a communication update from your employer recently, contact them to ask how the business is and when they expect you might return to work,” says Phillips.
“Furlough is also an excellent opportunity to freshen up or learn new skills. There are lots of free online courses available now. LinkedIn Learning, Google Garage, and FutureLearn are just some examples. Some of these courses are also accredited,” she adds. “This improves someone's employability, confidence and, furthermore, gives a sense of achievement that may be missing from not being in the workplace.”
Volunteering is another option, especially as restrictions are starting to lift. If you are missing the purpose and passion you get from your job, it's possible to find it in a volunteering role.
“Volunteering will help build a network, improve confidence, give a sense of achievement and belonging, and give employees the space to think about what they want to do next,” Phillips says.
And if you are struggling with your mental health, it’s important to speak to people. Talk to trusted friends and family about the way you’re feeling, or seek professional support from your GP, who can refer you for treatment such as talking therapy. If you’re feeling worried, low, or finding it hard to find enjoyment in life, charities such as Mind can provide advice and support.