UK workers furloughed during the Covid-19 crisis are grappling with worries that go far beyond the financial, according to a new survey report from leadership coach Janine Woodcock FinstLM.
In Furlough Fear: Understanding the Experience of Furloughed Staff, Woodcock reveals that only 21% of respondents align themselves with the statement: “Now I am furloughed, I feel okay and have no concerns.” The figures are significantly higher when the statement is reframed to account for issues such as loss of purpose (55%), loss of routine (59%), loss of connection with one’s firm (63%) and fear of future redundancy (81%). (Woodcock, 20 May 2020)
In a statement, Woodcock said: “I was compelled to develop this research while working with furlough decision makers from a variety of industries who – while well intentioned – were solely focused on the economic impact of their decision to furlough.”
She explains: “Their assumption was that furloughed staff would find receiving 80% of their salary (capped) without having to work extremely appealing. Yet in my conversations with those being – or about to be – furloughed, I was hearing deep concerns … This is how I came to coin the phrase Furlough Fear.”
In a YouTube video unveiled alongside the report’s publication, Woodcock urges furloughed staff to bear in mind that the only things they have control over are themselves, and their responses to the challenges they encounter. (Woodcock, via YouTube, 20 May 2020)
As such, she places the idea of self in a circle at the centre of a bullseye diagram, with two circles outside it. The second circle contains things that staff can influence through their actions and behaviour, but are not entirely within their control, and the third encompasses anything that is completely outside the reach of their influence.
“When we are faced with really challenging situations,” she says, “[and] ruminate on some of those things – for example, fear of future redundancy – you don’t have any control over that. That sits in that outside circle. So, the more we focus on those things and ruminate, the more they grow and amplify. This circle framework is a way of helping you notice when you are feeling really anxious and overwhelmed … then your energy goes into coming into that circle, and ultimately coming back to choosing what actions you want to take next.”
That’s a powerful recipe for self-management – but what can leaders do to help staff in their organisations confront and overcome their cases of Furlough Fear?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “If economic necessity were the only driver for people to go to work, then Janine Woodcock wouldn’t have discovered this phenomenon. Even though on the face of it, furlough seems to be a case of being paid not to come into work, it is in fact a rejection. It’s a statement that whatever you normally do in the workplace is not required. That’s a very hard thing to deal with, even if there are some silver linings.”
She points out: “The idea of not being wanted will, of course, give rise to such fears as, ‘Well, for how long will I not be wanted? Will this sense of rejection be continuous? Will furlough segue into a more permanent state of unwantedness – namely redundancy?’ As our research has repeatedly shown, people like to have control over their working day: I don’t think anyone who has contributed to our various reports over the years has ever told us that their idea of control is doing no work at all. Most people seek purpose from their work – which was the subject of our previous blog.”
With that in mind, Cooper notes: “When it comes to retaining that all-important sense of control, we at the Institute advocate the value of learning and self-development in any area that captures your imagination and provides a motivational hook. That’s certainly a path that leaders should encourage their furloughed staff to explore, and help them navigate.”
She adds: “Leaders must also convey to furloughed workers that it’s okay to come to an honest, unvarnished reflection on the situation, because that’s the prelude to i) understanding where the accompanying feelings are coming from, ii) discerning what, if anything, you can do about it, and iii) identifying the relevant actions you can take. But the first step is definitely recognising that furlough is accompanied by a feeling of rejection – and that requires leaders to empathise with the affected staff.”
Woodcock, 20 May 2020 (PDF download)