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Furlough Isn’t A Holiday, It Has Major Implications For People’s Mental Health

by : Niamh Shackleton on : 29 Jan 2021 14:29
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The ongoing pandemic has made people face an array of new, and difficult challenges – one affecting millions in the UK is furlough.

In the wake of COVID-19 seeing businesses having to close their doors, some of those who could not work from home ended up being furloughed for months on end.

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While furlough isn’t a new scheme, it’s become a common term over the past nine months as, by mid December, almost 10 million people in the UK from 1.2 million different employers had been put on furlough, according to HMRC data.

Initially the idea of being paid not to work will have been welcomed by many, but almost a year on since the pandemic hit the UK, people have come to realise it’s not all it cracked up to be which has gone on to have detrimental affects on their mental health.

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One person who has found himself mentally struggling was Keith Grinsted. Due to working in retail, Keith was first put on furlough in March 2020 and as been working on and off ever since.

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Furloughed again in November, and then in December, Keith, 68, explained to UNILAD how stressful he’s found it all. Discussing the current lockdown the UK is in, Keith said, ‘This lockdown is proving tougher [than the others]. Especially with all the retail closures. I worry if I’ll still have a job to go back to whenever this ends. The company I work for is being great but we are daily stepping into the unknown.’

He continued:

I would so rather be working. I’m stuck 24/7 living on my own in my one bedroom flat with just social media and the demons in my head for company. Having no social interaction is driving me up the wall.

We don’t even know when it may end. Life is on hold. I struggle to get up. I struggle to get motivated to do anything.

Keith explained how he saw his mental health improve back in November when he was back working most days, but due to having to self isolate for a period time followed by most of the country going into tier 4, he found himself without work and struggling again.

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He said, ‘Having been back to work I was strong during the November lockdown. I got back to work for eight days and all was good in my life. However, early December I had to self isolate and only got back to work three days before we went tier 4. That came as a shock.’

‘I started OK but as time has gone on I’ve started to question myself and my self-esteem my self-worth. Not knowing when this will end is just so difficult.’

Keith isn’t alone in how he feels; Sarah, 27, has described being furloughed as ‘certainly no picnic’ as routine and stability – something a job provides – can be vital for people with mental health conditions, like herself.

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Sarah works in live entertainment, one of of the worst hit industries by the pandemic. First furloughed in April 2020, Sarah has been sharing furlough alternatively with other people on her team on a month-by-month basis.

She explained to UNILAD, ‘In our department, it was decided that the best way to furlough members of our team was to alternate our time off, as we all do very similar roles. A couple of us would be furloughed for a month, and then we would swap with other team members. I am currently in my fourth month of furlough, having also been off work in June and November.’

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After being in the industry for five years, Sarah said she found it extremely difficult to adapt to life without work and that the live events industry grounding to a halt has been ‘really disorientating’ for her.

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Sarah said:

I felt redundant and without purpose – we couldn’t leave the house, we had to stay home, and I didn’t even have work to keep me occupied and distract me from the worries of the world. I felt like I wasn’t needed anymore; that was a really hard feeling to overcome. That, coupled with my husband still being hard at work (even though he was at home with me) meant that I felt really lonely and isolated.

She went on to say how difficult it has been being on-and-off furlough, too, and that she would feel anxious and stressed before returning to work after a month off, but would feel unfocused and unsettled when back on furlough. ‘It takes me quite some time to switch off from being back at work to having no communication for another month – I’m completely cut off from what’s going on in my department.’

Eleanor Davies, 24, has also found it difficult, and explained to UNILAD that she ‘burst into tears’ when she found out she was being furloughed from her job in IT recruitment.

Eleanor was furloughed for three months in April of last year and, while she found it hard, enjoyed her time off much more when the weather was nicer. However, when the weather changed, she found herself feeling more drained and starting looking for other jobs through worry of losing her current one because of the ongoing health crisis.

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She explained:

In the first few weeks it felt great but when the reality hits it’s so worrying being left in limbo, not knowing if there will be a job to go back to but also not knowing whether to throw yourself into looking for a new job.

I felt for a while like I was really wasting away my days and then felt anxious and guilty for not being ‘productive’, when really you have no choice!

Jessica Gallier, CEO of suicide-prevention charity The Martin Gallier Project, said that they have seen a 400% increase in referrals to our suicide intervention service since the country’s furlough scheme has been put into place.

Jessica said in a comment to UNILAD, ‘Throughout the pandemic we have seen a surge of individuals from outside of our typical demographic, a large number of these individuals are suddenly facing uncertainty around their financial and employment stability.’

She continued:

Furlough represents a lot of uncertainty at a time where we as a nation have very little control over our personal and professional futures. We know that fulfilling and secure employment can be essential to maintaining positive mental health. Without this it is common for individuals to unexpectedly experience a personal mental health crisis, this can rapidly escalate to a suicidal crisis.

Despite finding these unprecedented times extremely difficult, Eleanor, Sarah and Keith have all found ways to help their mental wellbeing.

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Sarah said, ‘I try to talk to my friends, family and husband when I’m feeling low, as many of them also struggle with mental health so I certainly feel like they can understand what I’m going through. I also threw myself into learning new skills and building up my own small business. It’s gone pretty well, and I’m really proud of that. I’ve found that having a different kind of work to focus on has helped to keep me busy.’

Similar to Sarah, Eleanor has tried to remain productive as well. ‘I’ve tried to something ‘productive’, however small, each day. Ten minutes of learning a language on an app, a short workout, clearing out my wardrobe, learning something new online – I got really into watching history documentaries on YouTube. I’ve found it really helps when you feel like you’ve done something small that’s good for you each day.’

Meanwhile, Keith has created his own support group named Goodbye Lonely and runs Zoom calls and one-to-one conversations with people to help them through this difficult period. He said, ‘I’ve helped a number of people through difficult times in their lives over the past year and I believe we can all be the light at the end of someone else’s tunnel.’

If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone.

Or, if you’ve been affected by any of these issues and want to speak to someone in confidence, please don’t suffer alone. Call Samaritans for free on their anonymous 24-hour phone line on 116 123. 

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Niamh Shackleton

Niamh Shackleton is a pint sized person and journalist at UNILAD. After studying Multimedia Journalism at the University of Salford, she did a year at Caters News Agency as a features writer in Birmingham before deciding that Manchester is (arguably) one of the best places in the world, and therefore moved back up north. She's also UNILAD's unofficial crazy animal lady.

Topics: Featured, COVID-19, Health, lockdown, Mental Health, Now, UK, Work