t definitely wasn’t how we initially envisaged 2020 playing out for our companies… for many the impact of this pandemic has come as a complete shock.
Our first concern was the spread of the virus and looking after our people’s health. For many of us, this has now settled down as we know our teams are safe, staying inside and are successfully adapting to remote working.
Now, it’s the wider economy that’s scaring us. Entire 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?
To help businesses through the tough times ahead, the Government threw out the lifeline in the form of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. Allowing employers to “furlough” their staff in return for 80% of people’s wages, up to a maximum of £2,500.
Until a few weeks ago most had never heard of the term, now it’s all anyone in HR is talking about.
Over the past week, companies have been assessing where they can reduce their teams, and their costs, to ensure they survive the coming months. 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 the numbers of furloughed staff rise dramatically.
While most eyes are on the economy and financial bottom line, it is essential that the mental wellbeing of furloughed employees remains a top priority for businesses.
Uncertainty, fears of job security and 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 maintaining ongoing support.
Ensure open communication with all employees at all times
When people aren’t informed, it’s much easier to create blame, resentment and for false scenarios to spread.
If possible 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.
Let them know that furloughing staff is an essential move for the future of your business and how it’s going to enable your company to be in a more secure position once the pandemic is over.
Show respect by including them in your thinking and they’ll be more likely to respect your decisions.
Reassure furloughed staff with a written plan
Don’t inform a colleague that they’re being furloughed and then leave them to calculate what 80% of their salary will look like. If you’re reducing their salary, then tell them.
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 practical support is available.
Provide 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 use all of your managers and team leaders.
Some employees are going to take to this like a duck to water. They’re going to be grateful for their salary, may have children they want to spend more time with, or already have a list of things they’d like to achieve whilst they’re furloughed.
For others it’s going to be much harder. This could heighten their anxiety, affect their mental health and make them feel more isolated.
Ideally managers or directors should have an ongoing record of how their furloughed staff feel, how they’re adapting and base their levels of contact and support around 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.
Emphasise 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 have 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 to budget
If you are planning a 20% reduction in salaries, it will 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.
Every employee’s needs are different and you will 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 are 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 9 to 5, 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.
Tahirih McLaren-Brown is founder of Flourish and provides training workshops for managers, advice on your company’s furloughing strategy and 1:1 coaching for furloughed employees.
She was a guest presenter on ACE’s Navigating COVID-19 webinar series. Replay the webinar here (coming soon).