Long Reads

When does furlough finish? 3 women reveal what it’s really been like

While thousands of employees continue life with the uncertainty of being on furlough, many people are starting to find out whether they have a job to go back to. Here, three women share their experiences of prolonged furlough, and experts share their best advice on how to cope with it.

It’s been five months since Rishi Sunak announced a furlough scheme to help the 10 million people who couldn’t do their jobs because of the coronavirus outbreak. The government paid 80% of furloughed employees’ wages, which companies could then top up, with the aim of preventing mass redundancies. Over 9.6 million people were furloughed, with £34.7 billion of furlough claims being made by 9 August. 

But, as lockdown eases, people are starting to return to work. Since July, furloughed employees have been able to go back to work part-time. Some people have returned full-time, while others have sadly been made redundant (the figure was 183,336 at the last count, as per data reported by The Guardian). Then there are those who are still furloughed and have no idea what happens next, especially as the furlough scheme ends in October

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One thing’s for sure: being furloughed for several months or more is something nobody imagined when dreaming of their career trajectory. It must surely take its toll on mental health, career progression and personal finances – especially when a person is also trying to deal with the trauma of a pandemic and an impending recession

“It is natural for humans to use tangible evidence to measure their achievements and success, and to compare and measure our achievement against our peers,” Michelle Scott of The Recovery Centre (TRC) tells Stylist. “For many people their jobs provide a structured environment in which to do this. We feel comfortable in this system where we know more or less exactly what we need to do. Our jobs also give us a sense of purpose, and therefore meaning, in our lives and this keeps us motivated and boosts our wellbeing.”

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Scott says that without all of this, we may feel we are not achieving anything with our time and therefore we question our worth and purpose. We may be discovering a need to constantly prove our worth or that we struggle to value ourselves without the external validation. Some may feel guilt at being paid to not work when others are on the front line or losing their job. This again can tap into feelings of not being worthy.  

However, other people can react differently and take a more positive approach: “Some may have stepped back and realised that they are overly dependent on external means of measuring their worth or coping with feelings. They have taken this time to think instead about their core values, to ask themselves what they want their purpose and motivation to be. To ask ‘How do I want to feel at the end of each day?’ rather than ‘What do I want to have achieved?’.”

Stylist spoke with three women who were furloughed to find out what their varying experiences have been like.

“I was on furlough and now I’ve been made redundant – weeks before buying a house”

Jodie, a quality control technician for an engineering manufacturer, first saw furlough as an option to save her job. After working out that she could still afford her bills on 80% of her wage, Jodie felt satisfied and looked on the positive side of not going into work for three months. 

The biggest thing she missed was the social aspect of work, but she addressed this by connecting with her teenage brother by playing games with him online and passed the time with cooking recipes from scratch.

But at the end of July, Jodie received more bad news.

“Redundancies were announced and my employer issued a list of the amount of people to go from each department,” Jodie tells Stylist

“I knew that my job was gone: it will be official on 2 September. I’m devastated. I loved my job. In my second redundancy consultation, it was outlined how much redundancy money I was entitled to, which softened the blow, but I’d much rather have my job than the money.”

To add more complications, Jodie has also been completing the purchase of her new house, which has been delayed for obvious reasons. In the meantime, she’s been paying rent on her flat.

“I wanted to continue with the sale because it’d put me in a better position financially to be a homeowner than continuing to rent. I also really didn’t want to lose the house because I fell in love with it. I now have a solid sale completion date of 28 August, which is the biggest relief probably of my life.”

Although Jodie is still searching for a job, she remains hopeful, saying: “Everything is always alright in the end”. 

Furlough
Furlough: from financial worries to losing a job you love, being on furlough for months has taken its toll in so many ways.

“I’m a single parent – I requested furlough because I had to look after my children”

Naomi, on the other hand, is a furloughed management consultant who has had to look after two small children on her own during the pandemic. Although her work was flexible, working in the evenings after a day of teaching, feeding and entertaining children was too much, so she requested to be furloughed. Even when schools could reopen, her children’s remained shut, which meant she couldn’t return to work even if she wanted to.

“I’m under no illusion that this is not a sustainable situation,” she says. “Not in this period. I don’t believe I have job security. I don’t know when they’ll tell me whether or not they need me back. I’ve worked there for less than two years so, if I’m made redundant, I won’t get the full package. That’s why I’ve looked at other ways of being able to support my family and have started my own business.”

Despite the uncertainty of what will happen with her job, Naomi says this has actually been a good opportunity to think about what she wants: “On the one hand, I am so much more aware of my own mortality, and being away from work has given me space to think about what I’m doing with my life and why. I no longer risk being scared, I feel like I know what my mission is.

“But, also, I need a break from my kids. It’s been a full-time job in itself and has taken its toll mentally and emotionally, not having that break from them that I usually had on a daily basis.”

Ultimately though, she says taking furlough was the best thing she could have done for her family under these circumstances. 

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“I started applying to jobs as soon as I was put on furlough – I don’t know how to feel” 

For Anna* a junior social editor who only graduated a couple of years ago, being made redundant halfway through furlough brought no positives for her. Straight after being told she was being furloughed on 1 April, Anna says she immediately knew “everything would go pear shaped”. That’s why she started looking for jobs straight away. 

A few weeks later, she joined a call with a handful of colleagues. Everybody kept their microphones and cameras off as their CEO announced they were being made redundant. “They handled it the best way they could, given the circumstances, but it just felt so impersonal. I remember ending the call, walking into my friend’s bedroom and telling her I’ve lost my job. It was just… really strange. And I still feel that strangeness.”

Without a Bank of Mum and Dad to get financial help from, Anna’s main concern is money. 

“I am being kept on furlough until September, but after that I don’t know where my income will come from. I have rent and bills to pay: I don’t care about getting a job in the field, I just want a job so I can live. I’ve been trying to apply for one everyday, but there are so many applications for each job now.”

As her fellow furloughed friends start to return to work, Anna admits that her situation has affected her relationships with them: “I am so much more sensitive if they don’t want to hang out after busy day at work. I’m still relying on them for support a lot but they are obviously busier now.”

Although she is grateful to have a small pot of savings to help her, she doesn’t know how long she can live off it.

Fear of the unknown is undoubtedly scary, especially when it comes to careers. But Evelyn Cotter, founder of SEVEN career coaching, recently shared her advice with Stylist on how to take control of your career, even in the face of setbacks and failures.

“Be ready for resistance and have a plan for when the chips are down,” says Cotter. “We are usually our greatest challenge in making change happen. We like the apparent safety of familiarity but, to create something better we have to step out of what we know. Be ready for your negative self talk to pop up and all the reasons why you will fail. Expect it and you can tackle it by disarming it and continuing on regardless.”

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How to cope with anxiety around furlough and redundancy

Cate Murden, founder of wellbeing and performance company PUSH, shares her tips for managing the mind and maintaining perspective while on furlough and/or facing redundancy:

  • Get out of your own head and seek counsel from others – choose a few people who you know could help you gain perspective and whose opinion you trust. Maybe specifically look at having some professional support ready too, be that a therapist, coach or lawyer.
  • Fuel your mind and body with good things – food, exercise, meditation, breathing exercises… It might be a challenge but if your body is in stress, you need to put more good stuff in to combat what you’re experiencing.
  • Journal everyday – problems on paper become puzzles that you can logically work out.
  • Try remember that this will not be the worst thing that happens in your life; it could actually be the best thing that happens. Focusing on that might inspire you to think differently.

Your rights when you are made redundant after furlough can be find on the GOV.UK website.

If you are worried about financial issues because of furlough and redundancy, Money Saving Expert is always updating its website with advice.

And to help look after your mental health, information, helplines and advice can be found on the Mind website or find resources on NHS Every Mind Matters website

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Images: Getty

*name changed at case study’s request