Coronavirus: supporting the mental health of furloughed employees

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This week marks Mental Health Awareness Week, and to help encourage discussion around the subject, we’ve looked into how employers can help support the mental wellbeing of their furloughed employees.

Throughout this week, we’ve been posting on our various social channels stats and facts about mental health and its impact within the workplace.

For those who have been following, it is certainly no secret that poor mental health is a massive financial burden on both organisations and the UK economy as a whole.

What is Mental Health Awareness Week?

Mental health relates to “a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional wellbeing.”

Unlike other health issues, mental health problems are often invisible to the untrained eye and can often go undiagnosed.

Then there is also the stigma surrounding mental health. Despite a climate of greater openness over the last two decades, mental health remains all too often a taboo subject.

It is for this exact reason that initiatives such as the Mental Health Foundation’s Mental Health Awareness Week are so important.

By encouraging honest and frank discussions surrounding mental health, it is hoped that sufferers will feel more confident in discussing their issues and encourage others to speak out about their experiences.

The outbreak of coronavirus has certainly further complicated the issue. The economic uncertainty fuelled by coronavirus has meant that many employers have been faced with the difficult decision of what to do when either some roles are no longer required, or when there is little or no work for their employees within the organisation.

Typically, at times such as these, employers must choose between one of two options; laying off employees or making them redundant.

However, on the 20th of March, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, announced the creation of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme designed to avoid mass redundancies and keep workers employed within their role.

The Scheme, which allowed employers to claim up to 80% of furloughed employees’ usual monthly wage costs (up to the value of £2,500 per month), was initially destined to last just three months, from the beginning of March until the end of June.

Midway through April, the Scheme was extended by a further month until the end of July, and just last week the Government confirmed that it would now be extended until the end of October.

Did you know?

A quarter of the UK workforce, equivalent to 8.4 million people, has now been furloughed, costing the Government more than £14 billion per month.

Coronavirus: furloughing employees

Since the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme was announced earlier this year, many people will have come across the term "furlough" for the very first time. So, what does furloughing employees mean and what do employers have to do? PayFit answers all your questions.

What can you do to support furloughed employees?

Many organisations keen to maintain their duty of care to their employees have put support structures in place to ensure that their staff’s mental wellbeing is monitored throughout this unprecedented situation.

As with most things, each organisation is likely to be affected in different ways. Regardless of its size or industry, each will have its own approach to handling the situation.

Equally, individual employees will have different opinions on the issue of furloughing; while some may welcome the decision, others may be more anxious about the situation.

Being furloughed can have dramatic consequences on individuals; if the transition from being in a busy and vibrant office environment to working exclusively from home wasn’t dramatic enough, going from having work-filled days to no work at all can be extremely unsettling.

Add to this, legitimate fears about their future, the prospect of suffering from loneliness and personal crises of confidence, and employees can find themselves completely overwhelmed.

Which is precisely the reason why employers need to find appropriate responses to address these concerns. Not easy at any time, but even more difficult when many companies are facing massive problems in simply keeping their business afloat.

🗣 Have honest and transparent conversations

Companies that are deciding to furlough some or all of their employees should look to ensure that there are the relevant structures and procedures in place to help and support all those affected. And while certain job assurances may not be able to be offered in the short or even long-term, honesty, sensitivity and transparency can help provide a certain level of comfort.

As a result, managers and HR teams must take the time to discuss and understand the concerns of each employee, provide advice and guidance on how to deal with the current situation and maintain contact with their employees throughout.

🤗 Be aware of sensitive circumstances and show you care

It is important to consider the individual circumstances of employees - i.e. are they living alone or do they have a challenging home situation?

By understanding what individual team members are experiencing at home, employers may be able to provide details for local support groups that they can lean on if required.

Employers should be aware that employees living in particularly challenging circumstances may need to be checked in on a more regular basis.

☎️ Check in with furloughed staff

When an employee is furloughed, they are unable to perform any work that provides a service or revenue to the organisation which has decided to furlough them. However, this doesn’t mean that their managers or the HR department can not get in touch with them.

In fact, Mental Health UK encourages employers to set up regular wellbeing chats with furloughed members of staff.

These can be informal conversations and can be useful in helping employers to understand how individual employees are handling the circumstances.

Employers may even find organising group conversations beneficial. If a large number of people have been furloughed, encouraging group discussions can be helpful with regards to sharing best practices or providing peer advice on coping mechanisms.

Not only can this help maintain team spirit, but it can also help relieve the heavy burden of isolation on those that are missing out on human interaction.

👨‍👩‍👦 Keep team members connected

Employers may also wish to include furloughed employees in any fun exercises they run with employees who are continuing to work.

A lot of companies have chosen to run virtual drinks, games or quizzes on various video conferencing apps.

While furloughed employees may not be able to take part in activities that provide a service to the company, inviting them to take part in exercises such as this could help boost their morale as well as that of their colleagues.

🏋️‍♀️ Encourage training and provide wellbeing tips

It may be difficult to see beyond the immediate future; however, it is a good idea to remember that the current situation will not go on forever.

One of the great problems with being furloughed is the amount of time people have at their disposal. With limited opportunity for going outside and exercising, finding mental stimulation can be challenging.

As mentioned earlier, furloughed employees are not allowed to take part in activities that constitute “work”; however, they can do training.

Training provides an excellent opportunity to build on existing skills or even add new ones. Many organisations already offer training opportunities, but for those that don’t, it may be worth recommending employees to take part in online training courses, such as The Skills Toolkit, provided by the Government.

Useful resources

The City Mental Health Alliance has produced this excellent PDF explaining how employers can support the mental health of their furloughed workers throughout the pandemic.

Mental health helplines

The Mental Health Foundation has produced this page dedicated to how people can support their mental health throughout the coronavirus crisis.

A list of helplines for more specific mental health issues can be found on the NHS website.

PayFit blog author

PayFit blog author


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