Until March 2019 the word furlough was an obscure, originally military term about being given a leave of absence.  Now it’s joined the likes of lockdown, social distancing and the R number to, unfortunately, become part of our everyday corona vocabulary.

At its peak in May 2020 nearly 9million people were furloughed, this had dropped to just under 4million (13% of the UK workforce) by December 2020.  While official data for 2021 has yet to be released,  numbers were already climbing towards the end of 2020 and as we’re now in our 3rd national lockdown, it’s highly likely that the current number has grown.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of articles on different aspects of furlough.  We start with furlough envy and how it can impact both furloughed and non-furloughed workers.

When furlough first started, schools were shut, the weather was glorious, and summer was just around the corner.  For those still working, it felt as though furloughed workers got the better end of the deal.  Plenty of time to spend schooling their children without the guilt of work getting in the way, time to complete some DIY projects, learn a new skill or simply just relax and enjoy the unusually warm weather.

If you were still working, then the likelihood is, it is because you were busy.  Either due to the increase in demand caused by the pandemic or because you were working hard to keep your organisation afloat.  Whatever the reason, both came with pressure and many people voiced concerns of potential burn out, feeling unable to switch off from work or take days off. If you add in any parental guilt of not feeling as though you were spending enough time schooling your children and doing all the banana bread baking and rainbow painting you see online. It is easy to see how resentment towards furloughed workers could grow.

However, it is one of those situations where it can often appear that the grass is greener on the other side.  On the surface being furloughed and being paid to stay at home and not work, is definitely something to be envious of.  However, as we are now in the 11th month of the furlough scheme many furloughed workers are just as envious of their working colleagues and desperate to return.

Imagine being half-way through the biggest project of your career, a career-defining one, that could lead to an amazing promotion.  Boom corona hits, you are furloughed, and your project is given to someone else to finish.  You manage a team of five, work levels have dropped due to the pandemic, so the decision is made to furlough you and 3 of your team, keeping on the remaining two team members to complete all the work, including work that used to fall under your remit.  You work within a wider team of 10 people, 8 are still working but you and one other have been furloughed, your work has been distributed amongst the rest of the team. You don’t know why you were chosen, and others weren’t.  You work in retail and have been furloughed for the 3rd time as the shop you manage has once again had to close, you’re unsure whether it will ever reopen again.

These are hypothetical situations, but ones that could easily be true.  They highlight just a few reasons why workers may be worried or have concerns about being furloughed.  Concerns about the impact time away might have on their career, whether they’ll have a job to go back to, will people change how things are done while they’re away or is it just a way of making them redundant?   At least if you’re still working, you know what is going on, can have a say on how things are done and know that you’re needed and that your job is safe.

If you work full-time, work takes up around 40% of your waking hours (assuming you’re awake for 15 hours a day).  That is a lot of time to suddenly have to yourself.  Once the initial novelty factor had worn off, you’d attempted to learn your 10th new skills, baked your 100th cake or gone for your millionth walk around the block.  Boredom and a feeling of groundhog day can quickly set in, especially while in a lockdown when activities outside of the home are unavailable. Regardless of whether you live in a full house or alone, after a while you start to miss the structure, social interaction and mental challenge that work can bring.

It feels as though, like the pandemic itself, furlough is never-ending.  It’s once again been extended until the end of April.  But as we yet don’t know when society will be able to open up again, it’s highly likely that it will continue further.  If it does the resentment and frustration felt by both sides can only grow, making it highly important for organisations to understand these concerns and work at ways to help alleviate them.