From a word that few people had heard of to an everyday part of conversation, furlough has been one of the major topics and sources of debate throughout the coronavirus outbreak.
Beyond causing financial and administrative tangles for governments and businesses alike, our latest research has also shown that furlough has been one of the main causes of tensions between colleagues.
Whilst those still working may think furloughed workers “have it easy”, the reality for many on furlough has been declining mental health fuelled by worries about money and job security.
Our Divided Together report asked 1500 people how the outbreak has impacted their wellbeing and how they’re feeling at work. Want all the facts at a glance? Take a look at our employee insight factsheets.
Experience of furlough
Though many people have been furloughed, individual experiences of this time away from work have varied.
For just over half (52%), everyone in their team was furloughed, whereas others found themselves selected over their colleagues.
With the government paying 80% of salaries for most of the outbreak, some companies chose to ‘top up’ employee salaries.
Our research shows, however, that this only applies to a minority: just under one in five (18%) said their pay was being topped up, decreasing to just 12% amongst furloughed parents.
Uncertainty around the virus and its business impact has been passed on to those on furlough: just 11% say they have an end date from their employer.
Rising uncertainty around job security
Unsurprisingly, concerns around job security are common amongst those who’ve been furloughed: 64% are worried, rising to 68% amongst furloughed parents. These concerns are compounded by worries about the economy with 61% expecting it to get worse.
As a result of this uncertainty, furloughed employees have been looking to their companies for reassurance - and not finding it.
Two in five (40%) furloughed employees think their employer should be doing more to reassure them with a quarter saying they should be doing more to ensure job security.
The result is that 24% say they don’t feel supported by their employer, worsening feelings of alienation and fuelling worries.
There’s a perception amongst those who haven’t been furloughed that this group have it easy (28%).
Over a third (35%) of people that were still working thought that those who’ve been furloughed have less to worry about, with over one in five (21%) believing that they’re getting special treatment.
Envy may be driving this resentment: 18% said they should have been furloughed instead.
Those who’ve been furloughed are well aware of this negativity from colleagues: 30% of those who’ve been furloughed recognise that others think they’re having an easy time.
Interestingly, those on furlough underestimate how many would want to switch places with them, believing that only 8% wish they’d been furloughed.
The true impact of furlough
Though envious colleagues may think being on furlough is easy, the truth is very different with those on furlough feeling the impact on their mental and physical health.
A worrying 56% of those who’ve been furloughed say their mental health has got worse, including 14% who say it’s got much worse.
The main reasons for this decline were financial concerns - a huge 61% said this was a source of stress compared to 40% of overall respondents - and missing their usual routine (57%).
Almost half (47%) pointed to spending more time on their own as a key factor behind their worsening mental health.
It’s also had an impact on physical health. Those on furlough were the most likely to say their physical health had got worse (38%). A lack of exercise (64%) and missing their usual routine (70%) were key factors.
Impatient to get back to work
Those who’ve been furloughed are especially keen to return to the workplace and expect to be working again very soon.
Just 5% would like to still be furloughed, compared to 66% who’d like to be back in the office and 15% who’d like to be working from home.
The biggest drivers for returning to work were a feeling of getting back to normal (77%), the financial boost (56%) and seeing colleagues again (53%).
Added anxieties about health
Though those who’ve been on furlough are the most enthusiastic about getting back to work, they’re also the most worried about the health risks.
Almost three quarters (74%) say they’re worried about catching the virus when they go back compared to an average of 53% across all respondents.
Many think it’s not currently safe to return (70%) and 65% are worried about their personal safety - both the highest amongst all groups surveyed.
On top of health concerns, 39% feel that once they return to work others will get special treatment whilst they get left behind.
Expectations of the new normal
Despite - or perhaps because of - not yet having tried new ways of working, furloughed employees are keen to see changes once they head back to work.
A significant 37% expect long-term changes to ways of working, with more than half (56%) saying they expect more working from home and less travelling for work (42%).
The strain that being furloughed has put on their wellbeing means that 26% are looking for extra wellbeing support from their employer; 24% would like more mental health support, 19% more physical wellbeing help, and 17% feel they’d benefit from financial management education or support.
Being aware of the impact that furlough has had on employees and the tensions it’s caused with those who’ve still been working will be key to creating a return to work strategy that helps bring teams back together and get back to productivity quickly.
Take a look at our articles on what HR teams should be thinking about when it comes to returning to work and transitioning back to the workplace for more support.
For more insight about how teams have been affected by coronavirus, take a look at the Divided Together report or download our employee insight factsheets.