When Martin was first told he was being put on furlough from the estate agency he worked in, his world turned upside down. At first he told himself not to worry and the first 2-3 week of furlough felt like a welcome holiday. But as the weeks dragged on, the realisation of mounting debts have become a pressure point. The furlough payment of £2325 just isn’t enough to cover his rent and child support and neither the landlord nor his ex-partner seem to give a damn.
Now he’s really started to worry. With no end in sight to the furlough and little communication from his manager, his feelings of insecurity have grown. Estate agencies have started to reopen their doors for business, but with no word from his manager when he would be starting work again, and reports of a potential economic slump, his future seems very uncertain.
Sadly, many of us can relate to what Martin is going through. The HMRC has reported 6.3million employees, nearly a quarter of the UK workforce, is on furlough (May 2020), the government’s job retention scheme being used by 800 000 companies to help retain employees who would otherwise be made redundant. But with the costs of the scheme rising daily and now an expectation for businesses to share greater costs, some are already announcing redundancy plans to restructure their operations to reduce costs. Every day on furlough, coupled with the lack of communication from his employers, Martin is fearing the worst.
Lockdown has been a confusing and frightening time for all of us. Many businesses, forced to close their doors and wading through new announcements and guidelines, have turned their attention to survival and away from managing their furloughed employees, often leaving them to fend for themselves. Although not intentional, but damaging nonetheless, this has impacted that vital connection to the business. Communication maintains engagement and trust with our employers. Its how we feel valued and feel we belong; that lack of attention cuts us adrift leaving us feeling bereft and anxious.
Furlough leaves a psychological scar. In 2019 up to 800,000 US federal government staff were furloughed for around 35 days returned to work demoralised and traumatised, angry and resentful with continued worries for the future. It took time to become productive again, working through a backlog and increased demands and a slow return of workplace motivation and efficiency. Martin might be one of the lucky ones - with some adjustments for social distancing - he may ease out of lockdown back into his old job. But at what cost? The stress and anxiety about the future, coupled with the lack of communication, may have taken its toll on Martin’s mental, physical and financial health, but the impact on the trust between him and his employer, may have been irreparably broken.
As we start to ease out of lockdown, employers now have some big questions to ponder; how to rebuild their business is important, yes, but so is rebuilding trust with employees.
The CIPD suggests that a lack of communication can have a negative psychological impact on employees’ physical, emotional and financial wellbeing. So at a time of such uncertainty communication is vital to ensure trust, engagement and productivity. It should be transparent and plentiful.
Encourage a “speak up” culture which ensures a safe channel for all employees, on furlough and not on furlough to voice their concerns or questions now and long after furlough is over.
Be personable, open and honest with your employees. They’re naturally worried about themselves, their families and their future so communication that is engaging is more likely to rebuild trust and be reassuring. Being clear about decisions being taken, even if its bad news, or even if there’s no news. This is the time for businesses to step up and respond with empathy and understanding.
Research suggests that the psychological scars from furlough are similar to the symptoms of “burnout” such as emotional exhaustion, performance deterioration, and carelessness with company property. Even employees who were not furloughed may be psychologically exhausted.
Be compassionate and help your employees manage and overcome the emotional burnout. Employees will be wary at first and will scrutinise your every move and action assessing your leadership but give them time to adjust. Employees will need assurance leadership is both empathetic, patient and listening to their concerns and responsive to their needs in order to rebuild trust.
Workplace conflict and toxicity may increase for a short while as employees who were furlough readjust to working again with colleagues whose roles maybe perceived as more important to be furloughed. Reinforce your company values, focussing on respect and team-work, and ensure your leaders are demonstrating positivity, acknowledging “we are all in it together”. This will help increase motivation and rebuild trust and cooperation within and across teams.
This will be even more important if roles have to be changed and new working conditions imposed, or if any employees are made redundant or moved into different positions or perhaps new employees have to be hired and trained.
Remember that even after a relatively short furlough, it can take time to get things back up and running.
Research also shows furlough can result in decreased life satisfaction. Employees may reassess what they really want from life and how work is serving their values and desires. They may look for new opportunities, a different role, shorter working hours to spend more time with family, permanent homeworking arrangements and, of course, less travel.
The emotional, physical and cognitive exhaustion from furlough can become a trigger for change and as we ease out of lockdown employers will have to give each request serious attention and be hard to refuse in the future.
This will prove important in rebuilding trust with employees, especially with your top performers. You don’t want to lose them but they’re probably the ones most likely to be brushing up their CVs and find new opportunities either while on furlough or soon after.
Data and Insights
Most businesses are typically data rich but often insight poor. Extracting data from systems can be cumbersome and quite tricky and yet the data offers meaningful opportunities to build an operational resilience to withstand the next wave of the virus or, perhaps, a new emergency.
Insights provide a laser sharp focus to people centric solutions to plug gaps in productivity and performance and will be even more incisive to help businesses survive and thrive post covid-19.
In summary, furlough has been a painful limbo for Martin. He’s felt completely powerless throughout his furlough and has a bleak view of his future. This loss of internal and external control - “locus of control” in psychological terms - has impacted Martin’s self confidence and self-efficacy. And sadly he’s not alone. As businesses look to reopen its important to plan ahead and manage these issues with empathy and focus on rebuilding trust. They maybe rewarded with a stronger and more productive working relationship with their employees.