Hidden furlough divide threatens workplace stability


With lockdown restrictions now easing, the hope is that many of those who remain on furlough will be going back to work in the coming weeks. The natural assumption is that those who do will feel an intense sense of relief, however new research has revealed that further difficulties could be on the horizon.

The study by business psychology firm Pearn Kandola surveyed 500 employees from across the UK, 253 of whom were on furlough, to examine the underlying psychological impact of being placed on extended temporary leave. Their findings uncovered a significant and troubling decline in wellbeing, personal confidence, job satisfaction and commitment among those on furlough.

It is understandable that after an extended absence, staff are less likely to feel a part of their organisation’s future. While the study’s sample size was relatively small, it points to a potential divide between those who have experienced the furlough process, and those who have not.

To be away for a long time – for some it has been more than a year – is undoubtedly frustrating. There were some imprudent generalisations being tossed about last year about “furlough freeloaders”, but the reality for the vast majority has been varying levels of anxiety about their financial future.

On the other hand, those who have been working may have felt extra pressure to perform well to justify their place. They may have also been dealing with extra workload to cover tasks normally undertaken by furloughed colleagues.

This sets the stage for an “us versus them” culture that would impact productivity and morale, and could create a hostile work environment. Further complicating matters is that for many organisations, this will take place as they are also attempting to repatriate staff back to the office, which will come with its own set of stresses and demands.

The leadership challenge is to ensure as smooth a transition as possible. Ideally, employers should have kept up regular contact with furloughed staff, but if not, now is the time for clear communication on the reintegration process.

Staff need to be made aware of their return as soon as possible to give them time to prepare. Once back, it may be a good idea to run some team-building exercises or other programmes to ease the return.

It could take years before we fully understand the impact of furlough on employees and organisations. In the meantime, employers must act now to combat any frustration or resentment that would have a lasting effect on performance.

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Posted on April 27, 2021