Nearly half of people in Britain said they experienced “high anxiety” as the country went into lockdown.
Those suffering the greatest level of worry were an estimated 2.6 million people who said they were struggling to pay bills.
Some have now been ‘furloughed’, which means remaining employed but not undertaking your usual work; you’ll still receive 80% of your salary by the Government, up to a maximum of £2,500 a month and still continue to pay income tax and national insurance contributions.
However, with ongoing uncertainty around the end date of lockdown, and what lockdown might look like if it is lifted in stages, there are growing fears that the Government’s furlough scheme may be delaying redundancies, instead of its initial intention of protecting jobs (and the Government’s rules on furloughing are being constantly updated.)
Dr Paul McLaren, consultant psychiatrist at Priory’s Wellbeing Centres in central London, said this fear was very real: “Furlough to many, feels like it is just buying time, and it also emphasises the insecurity of a person’s position – especially for those working in financial services, due to the grim economic forecasts.
“It can be difficult to keep motivated and remain optimistic in these uncertain times – especially for those who have found themselves ‘put out’ to furlough, often without any warning or consultation.
“For many – contrary to paid gardening leave, when people do feel comfortable ‘kicking back’, enjoying the weather or tackling jobs at home – this unprecedented and enforced paid time from work can cause feelings of anxiety as they struggle with the lack structure to their day and a reduced salary.
“For those where employers are not in a position to ‘top up’ the remaining 20%, the financial worries and fears for the future are starting to mount up.”
Dr McLaren says that the loss of routine, in particular, can also have a significant impact on the mental health of many. “We are creatures of habit and are most productive and content when our lives have a rhythm.”
For those who are finding furlough challenging, Dr McLaren says that it is important to maintain some routines, to help alleviate the anxiety.
- Structure your day – Routine, routine, routine. Try to think about the key elements in your life before the current situation – work, social interaction (both formal and informal), play, intimacy, caring for others and chores. It is worth thinking about what the balance normally looks like and how you can make a new balance work for you.
Those living with others or a partner may find that it is worth sitting down and making a plan together, thinking about how you can carve up the required tasks in a way that best suits you as individuals, recognising your individual needs
- Safe drinking – Watch your alcohol intake to avoid ‘Furlough Merlot’. Try to keep to the official guidelines and maintain alcohol free days, at least two a week. Furlough is not a holiday as such but an unprecedented and unforeseen ‘change of plan’ which no-one would have predicted three months ago. In normal circumstances, the routines of driving, going to the office and general work ‘etiquette’ puts natural constraints on drinking which can get lost when being at home all day.
- Make time to socialise – In our normal lives, we take a lot of social contact for granted. We interact with people going to and from work, in the corridor, by the watercooler or in the canteen. Schedule in time to chat with family and friends, particularly if you live alone.
Whilst it has many benefits in staying connected, social media and messaging isn’t the best replacement for face-to-face interaction; instead try picking up the phone or video calling.
- Regular exercise – Staying active is absolutely vital to mental wellbeing and it is important to find time to exercise regularly; a daily walk or run (download the popular Couch to 5k podcast if running is new to you) or even a home workout – there are plenty of free sessions to follow online. But always abide by official advice on social distancing. Depending on available space, you can try to be creative about what you do to keep moving and mobile in the comfort and privacy of your own home.
- Volunteer – there are, of course, certain rules and regulations about what work you are / aren’t allowed to take on whilst on furlough (which your employer or HR manager should have explained to you – reach out to them if not). And there’s nothing to stop you becoming involved with local volunteering or helping out neighbours in need with shopping or picking up prescriptions. Voluntary work might be something you’ve always wanted to do but have never had the time to due to your own work commitments, and it will also allow you to ‘look outwards’. Check out social media sites for details of your local COVID-19 Volunteer Support Group.
- Land Army – Government has recently announced that furloughed workers may be entitled to sign up to the UK’s new “Land Army” to help with the imminent harvest of crops and fruit. Watch out for an update on this changing situation; it could provide a solution to several issues; staying busy, keeping active, helping others, and of course financially.
- Take advantage of any help your company is offering – If you’re an employer, you should stay connected and trying to help, and if you’re an employee, don’t be afraid to ask for it. Many companies offer access to mental health services. Your health insurance may cover mental health therapy. Check if you are retaining your health-insurance benefits. Meanwhile video conferencing can be a good tool for virtual socialising. In terms of redundancy, during the course of any redundancy process, there is an obligation to explore alternatives to job losses. If the consultation was happening now, then furlough leave may be an appropriate alternative to consider. Each case is different so it’s important to take legal advice.
For employers, ‘checking in’ with your furloughed team should be encouraged. There is still a lot of uncertainty, so if they ask, try to tell them honestly what you know, to reduce anxiety as far as you can.
Isolation can lead to paranoia – even those who have never experienced feelings like that before. Take the time to reach out to employees whom you know have a vulnerability to emotional problems.
It may not be so easy to spot that they are struggling on a multi-point video call, so if appropriate, pick up the ‘phone. It’s good to talk, never more so than now.