Six ways ‘out of sight, out of mind’ furloughed employees are a concern for employers

Verbal snapshots of life under furlough highlight engagement, mental health, returning to (team) work and redundancy issues

One-to-one calls with furloughed employees has shown insights for employers and line managers, according to Renovo’s Rhys Moon, an employment expert who helps organisations support employees through workforce change.

He explained: “Three director and manager level employees from different industries talked to our team under anonymity and it highlighted distinct issues for employers and team leaders in terms of engagement, mental health, returning to work and a fair redundancy process.

“The overriding theme from the conversations was lack of communication from their employers, which exacerbated anxieties about their roles, financial security and general future. They understood their employers’ need to furlough, but it’s affecting them personally which could magnify in terms of how it impacts the organisation.”

Here are six snapshots of furloughed life, highlighting issues for employers and providing advice:

Communications are allowed – and encouraged – under the furlough scheme

Employee view: “My employer seems to think that they are not allowed to engage with me about the business. I can understand that there’s been a lot of controversy about fraud and furlough, but I feel really detached and then anxiety spirals, not helped with a disproportionate level of time on my hands”.

Although employees cannot work during the furlough period, there are, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development website clear processes about communicating with them. The site says “…an employer’s duty of care for employees continues during furlough so employers must maintain non work-related contact with furloughed staff to discuss any personal matters, including their health and well-being, and to allow employees to ask any questions or raise concerns”.

In our roles at Renovo, where we support employers and employees through redundancy, we see poor communication feeding employees with feelings that their individual needs are not being met.

However, from an employer’s perspective, getting the balance right is vital. They need to remain impartial so they’re not accused of any favouritism or bias, especially if redundancies are being considered. The balance is not easy when every individual and organisation has been finding their feet, but seeking guidance over elements that aren’t clear can significantly support relationships and the business.

Furloughed employees may feel disengaged

Employee view: “I feel quite disillusioned. I’m not sure about whether my employer’s view of how they perceive me is accurate, if they really valued me based on my ethics. It makes me feel undervalued. It’s raised a lot of questions about how much they really care for staff”.

Some individuals know they’ll be going back to work and that their financial future is fairly secure. Others don’t know what the future holds or what the business will look like if they go back.

So, remaining impartial, employers can guide their people towards practical support, or provide written advice on themes such as mental health and motivation. They can also take pulse surveys to understand emotions and then respond accordingly or offer online learning for new skills or resilience programmes.

Line managers and HR may need to redress some issues

Employee view: “If I went back, it’d change things. I’m frustrated with the company and my boss, but the boss is the face of the company to me. After I heard about being furloughed, my boss said he’d do a video at 9 the next morning. He didn’t ring – or apologise for not ringing”.

The CIPD article also explains that “contact helps maintain furloughed employees’ loyalty and engagement so that they can return to work smoothly after the lockdown. Contact should be arranged ahead of time, so it’s expected”. The article provides key considerations for employers, plus they can support line managers to maintain contact with furloughed staff, so they know what they can and can’t do.

Returning to work may feel uncomfortable for furloughed employees and those who have remained

Employee view: “When I go back, I’ll feel like a newbie. I’m so out of the loop on how the business has been innovating and changing. The guys in the team who are involved in shaping the new way of working are going to be in a different space from the rest of us. I know they’re shattered and desperate for time off. They think we’ve been having cushy life, but I’d trade places with them tomorrow”.

Employees’ different perspectives are likely to be at odds. Furloughed employees may feel anxious and like they’ve re-entered a working world that may have substantially changed, while the people who have remained may feel overstretched and frustrated that they haven’t had ‘time off’.

It’ll be a hurdle that needs planning for, so employers help relieve tensions and reunite teams.

Furloughed employees can feel lost

Employee view: “I feel bewildered and adrift with structure gone. I miss being good at something every day. I was brought up thinking if I work really hard, I’ll get on, but it’s not the case now”.

Employers may want to offer more support, but conversely may feel the strain of furlough terms and conditions or trying to remain at a distance in order to maintain impartiality.

It’s possible, however, to give employees consistent communication, whether in the form of a company update, or a more pastoral ‘catch up’, to help them feel less anxious and more involved.

Redundancies may be inevitable

Whilst the current crisis is new and unique, most employers, especially those with a strong HR function, have knowledge of redundancy terms, but HR needs support.

If redundancy is inevitable, management must be able to justify their choices, showing that the decision was made based on an objective set of values.

It would help too, to bear in mind that redundancies may be similar to the grieving process for employees. Employers who understand the basics of the Kubler-Ross change curve model (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) can support employees’ wellbeing so they come to accept the situation and progress.

Rhys Moon summarised: “The conversations with these three people were incredibly touching and sad. They told us they felt bewildered and adrift with the structure gone, that they missed being good at something every day. They said they felt part of the team before, but don’t feel important now.

“They said it’s the not knowing that is frightening and scary, that they don’t know if they’re going back to work. They believed they did a good job, but that all feels forgotten, so they feel disillusioned and wonder if they really care for their staff.”

“These are incredibly difficult times for employers and employees to navigate, but understanding perspectives helps shed light on moving ahead as effectively as possible.”