By Tahirih McLaren-Brown, Mental Wellbeing Coach.

Having to furlough staff is not something that has ever crossed our minds before or even a word many of us were familiar with.

It definitely wasn’t how we saw 2020 playing out for our companies.

This pandemic has been a complete shock and a shake up for all of us.

Our first concern was the spread of the virus and looking after our employee’s health. For many of us, this has now settled. We know our teams are safe, staying inside and have adapted to remote working.

Now it’s the economy that’s scaring us. Industries have shut down, SMEs are fighting to stay afloat and every company is looking at their finances and asking two questions; How long can we survive this and where can we cut costs?

And then the Government threw out the lifeline that is their furloughed worker scheme, which sees them pay up to 80% of people’s wages, to a maximum of £2,500.

Over the past week, companies have been assessing where they can reduce their teams, and their costs, to ensure they survive the coming months. We’ve already seen this happen to huge numbers of employees and the British Chamber of Commerce is expecting that 44% of businesses will furlough at least 50% of their staff, with some having to do this for their entire workforce.

This week and next, we’re going to see furloughed staff numbers rise dramatically.

At the moment, all eyes are on the economy but it’s essential that the mental wellbeing of these employees is a top priority for businesses.

Uncertainty, job security fear, financial worries and loss of purpose and identity are all issues they’ll be facing.

Here are some ways you can prioritise the wellbeing of your furloughed employees, from the initial conversation to ongoing support.

Have open communication with all employees at all times

When people aren’t kept informed it’s much easier to create blame, resentment and false scenarios.

Be open with all your employees about the financial situation of the company and why you need to use the Government Scheme. Tell them what areas you’re losing income in and what your monthly costs look like.

You don’t need to get into the minor details, particularly if that will encourage more fear. But let them know that furloughing staff is a financial essential and how it’s going to enable your company to be in a more secure position (or still there at all) once the pandemic is over.

Show respect by including them and they’ll respect your decisions.

Reassure furloughed staff with a written plan and salary

Do not inform a staff member that they’re being furloughed and then leave them to calculate what 80% of their salary will look like.

It is uncertainty and the unknown that causes us the most worry.

It’s your job to remove as much of that uncertainty as possible and you can do this by being prepared with a plan.

Have a written document ready which states the confirmation of the furlough, the salary the employee will receive, a date when this will be reassessed, what support is available and what being furloughed practically looks like (I.e. they cannot work at all but can they clear their emails weekly or assist with questions from colleagues?).

Give individual support

Either during the conversation about furlough or in a dedicated meeting a day or two later, have an open chat with each employee about how they’re feeling and what their plan is.

Depending on the size of your company and amount of furloughed employees, this may be a big job but utilise your managers and team leaders.

Some employees are going to take to this like a duck to water. They’re grateful for their salary and already have a list of things they’d like to achieve (or Netflix to watch).

For others it’s going to be much harder. This could heighten their anxiety, affect their mental health and make them feel more isolated.

My vision would be that managers or directors have an ongoing record of how their furloughed staff feel, how they’re adapting and base their levels of contact and support on this.

Don’t underestimate the value of talking to them about their plans for that period either. Encourage them to take up a project, volunteer or learn a new skill. When you do this, you help to turn their mindset towards opportunity.

If an employee says they have no idea and will have nothing to do, that’s a big flashing sign that they need extra support from you.

Emphasis their value and highlight their contributions

Although it may seem clear that it’s the pandemic that’s causing your company to temporarily stand down staff, don’t assume that employees won’t take it a little personally.

This is especially true if some of their team is staying on full-time.

I can’t emphasise enough how much value people place on their career, salary and achievements. Without their work, some people will question their self-worth, not only to your company, but also to society.

We all collect evidence to support our beliefs and if their belief is that they’re not valued, they will quickly think of all the ways they could’ve done something wrong or why they’re not as good as their colleagues.

Tell your staff why you value them, highlight to them things in the past year that they’ve done really well, remind them of their outstanding review and tell them what projects you’re looking forward to working with them on in the future.

You need to ensure that after you’ve finished talking, they have no doubts about how important they are to you.

Help them with a budget

A 20% reduction in salary is going to be a big hit for some.

Yes, it’s an uncomfortable conversation and yes, you’re going to feel rotten if they say they’re going to struggle.

Show empathy and have a resource ready to share with them. They might be able to get budget advice from your employee assistance programme or you could recommend a free online tool.

Financial worries cause massive stress and anxiety so knowing the position of your employees can be another indicator of their mental wellbeing and how much support they need.

Schedule check-ins

Every employee’s needs are different and you need to schedule check-ins based on these.

For some (the duck to water people), a weekly call and a couple of messages is perfect.

For others, it might be a daily text and twice weekly calls.

Don’t just rely on the employee to communicate what they need. You should also make a judgement based on everything mentioned above and how your conversations with them go over the coming weeks.

Ask yourself whether you’re the right person for the job. Your employee might need check-ins but not feel as comfortable talking to you. Have a chat to someone in your team or who they’re friends with at work and ask them to check in regularly as well.

They’re not a hot potato, so don’t drop them

Every company will be emphasising to their furloughed staff that they are still employed, this is a temporary measure and they will be back in their role as soon as they can be.

Make sure you follow that up with your actions.

I know some companies that are having twice weekly staff meetings which their furloughed staff join and they’re including them in their virtual team drinks, challenges and activities.

These staff are still part of your team and although they can’t do any work, cutting all ties is going to make them feel isolated and excluded.

Don’t forget that for a lot of us, our colleagues are the people we see and talk to the most. Taking that contact away, especially in lockdown, is another factor that will affect their mental wellbeing.

Scared it will be awkward? It’s only uncomfortable if you make it uncomfortable.

Make a real effort to ask them about what they’re doing with their time and get everyone else encouraging them.

If they’re learning a language, get them to teach you some phrases. If they’re doing crafts, have them make the team something. If they’re cooking up a storm, ask them to send recipes or run a team competition.

Value what they’re doing and use it as a way to bring more fun to your team.

If you’ve got their back, they’ll have yours

Throughout this process, don’t forget that your employees are on your company’s team. They don’t want to see their company struggle and if they feel valued, included and informed, they’ll do their best to support your decisions and you.

When you’re back in action, they’ll be ready to jump in with more loyalty and a renewed motivation.

Remember, this is new for everyone and we’re all figuring it out together. It's going to be messy and uncomfortable.

Just show openness, compassion and inclusion.

Don’t shy away from tough conversations and be proactive in asking employees about their wellbeing.

In a couple of years, people won’t recall the stress of furlough or what they even did during it, but they will remember how you, and your company, made them feel.

Does your company and staff need extra support?

Get in touch with me if you've furloughed staff and you need wellbeing expertise.