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“I really hit rock bottom”: women on the reality of being on furlough for 18 months and what will happen now the scheme is over

As the end of the furlough scheme has left millions in a state of limbo, Stylist speaks to two women about the uncertainty of it all and why it still continues.

Job insecurity is a terrifying thing. To be uncertain of when the next paycheque is coming or whether work will still be there the following week is enough to unravel the toughest person – and when you’ve been living in that cycle for over a year, its effects can be life-changing.

Millions of people were faced with that dilemma after the introduction of the government’s furlough scheme in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The scheme, which saw the wages paid for people who couldn’t work, or whose employers could not afford to pay them, left many across various sectors unsure of their futures.

According to recent figures, 1.6 million people were still on the scheme by the end of July, despite plans for it to end on September 30, leaving employers to choose to pay workers to remain furloughed, have them back at work or make them redundant.

And with a large number of people still on furlough at the time the scheme ended, millions have had the rug pulled from under their feet with their jobs no longer protected and their career prospects and livelihoods hanging in the balance – particularly among women who were disproportionately affected by the scheme.

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A report from the Women’s Budget Group revealed that, by the end of February 2021, 2.3 million women were furloughed compared to 2.1 million men.

In addition, nearly a quarter (24%) of all women between the ages of 18 and 25 who were eligible for furlough had been furloughed, compared to just 20% of eligible men of the same age, highlighting the disparity faced by women during this pandemic.

“The past 18 months have been a rollercoaster”, says Lois Haggarty. “I’ve always got that thing in the back of my mind of what am I going to do?”

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Haggarty works as a charity worker in Surrey and was put on furlough in March 2020. She remained on furlough up until its closure and has faced a challenging year due to the ups and downs in both her professional and personal life.

“When the scheme first started and I went on a furlough, it was all OK. We were all kind of in the same boat and no one really knew what was going on,” she recalls.

“But as more people started to go back to work, I’d get a call saying I’m still furloughed because I can’t do the job that I’m meant to be doing as it’s not a working from home position.”

As others returned to work, Haggarty’s experience on furlough left her feeling concerned for the future.

“I was told I may be at risk of redundancy in April, and then in August I was told, ‘You’re definitely going to have to start looking around for another job’,” she says.

“Those feelings are just now left lingering there.”

These concerns around the future of her employment were further amplified by feelings of guilt as others around her returned to work.

“I felt like a bit of a fraud,” she admits. “This is not an extended holiday and I feel guilty that I can’t work. And it’s not like I can do anything extra because of all the furlough rules. So, that makes me feel a little bit useless.”

While some have argued that those on furlough could look for work elsewhere, Haggarty says there’s a lack of consideration towards people’s personal lives and the dependencies they may have.

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“I could get another job, but I’ve already got a job and I’ve got to look after my mum as well, who has been diagnosed with cancer.

“I kind of feel guilty that I’m still on furlough and I want to keep it quiet because I know that everyone else has gone back. But on the flip side of that, it’s not my choice and I think people could be a bit more understanding. I can’t commit to something else while I’ve got this going on so I’m doing my best within the unknown.”

For marketing manager Jess Pitman, she was left in limbo after being furloughed from her job in March 2020 – something which resulted in a huge knock to her confidence and mental health.

“I’ve been on furlough pretty much since they announced the salary scheme back in March, and I’ve been on variations of flexible furloughs throughout this summer,” she says.

A photo of Jess Pitman outside
Jess Pitman

Pitman works for a tour operator company based outside of Salisbury – an industry that took a huge knock as travel was massively affected by the pandemic.

“Around January 2020, we began to see the pandemic affecting our business and then as a result, the world started falling to pieces.

“It means that our company has been massively affected. There were 27 of us and now there are just six.”

Jess said the process of being on furlough and the changes that have taken place within the company has left her “devastated”.

“I was really getting into my stride in my career, doing great things and really making a massive impact in the business. I felt absolutely heartbroken and I appreciated that it was out of everyone’s control and it was for the best for the business, but I was surprised at how badly I reacted to it,” she says.

“To be honest with you, I really hit rock bottom. It massively knocked my confidence. I feel very grateful for the scheme, but the impact it had on my mental health has taken me by surprise.

“It’s going to take a long time for me to recover and bounce back from that.”

In the midst of the unpredictability that came with being on furlough, Pitman found herself in a difficult position where she had to fight for her own role.

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“As a business, we still weren’t in a position where we could take anyone back. There have been probably two or three rounds of redundancy conversations so I’ve had to fight for my job a few times and put my case forward as to why I’m valuable for business.

“It’s resulted in me thinking to myself is the business ever going to recover? What is going to happen when it does eventually come to an end when the rug is pulled out from under us?”

Being on furlough over the last 18 months has meant Jess has attempted to do what she can in order to make additional money – but the long term effects of being furloughed is something that stays on her mind.

“I’ve looked at other jobs, I’ve put myself out there, I’ve sold clothes – I’ve done all sorts just to make sure that I’ve got that buffer of money there. But that uncertainty remains and there’s not much we can do about it but to wait and see.” 

If you know someone who is concerned about job security, visit UNISON women for advice on equality in the workplace, improvements to women’s rights in the workplace and the wider community.

Images: Getty, Jess Pitman

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