18 months ago, few of us had heard the term ‘furlough’ or knew what it meant. But in early 2020 the pandemic created labour market disruption which exceeded even the impact of the global financial crisis of 2009.
Many governments had no option but to provide financial support so that companies whose operations were halted could continue to pay employees rather than make them redundant. Countries such as the UK, Australia and Hong Kong introduced job retention schemes which allowed staff to stay home but remain on the payroll until the situation improved. Furlough had arrived.
Recent International Labour Organization analysis reveals that in 2020, 8.8% of global working hours were lost, which equates to 255 million full-time jobs of which 141 million relate to furlough. Losses were highest in the Americas and lowest in Europe and Central Asia, where job retention schemes were implemented. According to the ILO, job losses were higher for women (5%) and young workers (8.7%) than for men (3.9%) and older workers (3.7%). The sectors most affected, for example, hospitality, leisure, travel and retail, traditionally employ more women and younger workers.
Furlough: JOMO or FOMO?
The intention of furlough is that employees eventually return to their jobs but because there is no guarantee, this creates fear and job insecurity. So it is not surprising that employees’ responses to furlough vary. Some see it positively, welcoming the time they can spend with children or looking after elderly relatives, or simply feeling relieved at having time for personal projects. For them, there is a joy of missing out. For others it is entirely negative, creating worry about managing on a reduced income or eventual redundancy. Some may think they are not an important enough member of the team or lose their sense of purpose. They may live alone and miss the interaction with colleagues. For them, there is a fear of missing out. It’s therefore important to treat each furloughed worker as an individual.
Work and wellbeing: a two-way street
Work is central to our lives: prior to the pandemic we spent approximately one third of our waking hours at work. It is one of the most important determinants of wellbeing. Interestingly, the relationship between work and wellbeing is two-way: work is good for wellbeing and wellbeing is good for work. Research suggests that the vast majority of people rate work as important or very important to their wellbeing. Employed people have higher life satisfaction and experience more positive emotion than unemployed people. Work also provides meaning and purpose, social relationships and a sense of belonging, status, daily structure and routine and the opportunity to use skills. This provides clues as to why furlough feels negative to many people – not only do they lose income, they also lose their sense of purpose, their routine, their social interactions and the chance to use their strengths.
Because high wellbeing is beneficial to performance (for example, research suggests that it is associated with higher productivity and engagement, as well as lower absenteeism, sickness and staff turnover), it makes good business sense for managers to continue to focus on the wellbeing of furloughed staff. Keeping in touch is vital – it shows employees that they matter and that people care. The wellbeing of furloughed staff can be supported by focussing on three fundamental psychological needs: autonomy, competence and connection.
It’s good for both employees and the business if staff are as free as possible to make their own decisions, choose their goals, and how they do their work. Numerous studies have found a connection between autonomy at work and higher motivation, performance and wellbeing, and that a perceived lack of control can lead to stress and ill-health. Furloughed staff no longer have work-related goals so their autonomy will be reduced. We can help address this by encouraging them to set personal goals, for example learning new skills, taking up new hobbies or achieving long-held personal dreams.
Research shows that people naturally want to perform well; they want to feel competent, make progress and feel a sense of mastery in what they do. Furloughed staff can no longer meet this basic human need through their work. According to psychology professor Alex Linley, playing to our strengths not only leads to high performance, but also to increased energy, confidence and resilience. We can encourage furloughed staff to use their strengths and talents in other domains of life. They can discover their strengths by doing an assessment, such as Strengths ProfileTM and then find new ways to put strengths into practice. For example, if they’re into sports, measuring their progress and personal bests will increase their sense of mastery. Research suggests that doing things for others increases wellbeing. Furloughed workers can also apply their strengths and develop their sense of mastery through volunteering.
Not only are good relationships with colleagues essential to wellbeing, they also enhance trust, resilience, creativity and openness to learning, and thus lead to higher individual, team and business performance. For some employees, especially those who live alone, or have a difficult personal life, furlough can be devastating – without a job to go to they cannot meet the basic human need for connection. We can help address this by promoting regular online social gatherings, for example, quizzes or book clubs, which provide the opportunity to socialise and do something engaging and fun which is not work-related but can help to build camaraderie, trust and positivity.
It’s inevitable that furlough creates anxiety for some workers about returning. They may experience ‘fear of the office’. Organisations have a duty to put in place practical COVID-safe working arrangements. It also helps if furloughed staff are kept up to date with business developments, such as the progress on new projects, so they continue to feel involved. Every employee wants to feel appreciated and this is just as important for those on furlough. Showing that they matter will help them look forward to returning to work when furlough ends and perhaps maintain their confidence and motivation to seek alternatives if they are unlucky enough to lose their job.
About the author
Bridget Grenville-Cleave is a positive psychology consultant specialising in happiness and wellbeing at work and co-author of Creating the World We Want to Live In (Routledge) available now £19.99.
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