Louise Scodie, senior PR and communications manager at advertising wellbeing charity Nabs, reflects on her time on furlough and offers some lessons for those returning to work.
I’d been working from home (translation: struggling to juggle work while caring for my two-year-old, Amber) for four weeks after the start of lockdown when my employer, Nabs, announced its plans for furlough.
Nabs is a charity, reliant on donations from our industry. The potential financial turmoil caused by the pandemic meant a significant drop in funds, not least because we’d had to cancel our crucial fundraising events. Furlough would help to protect some much-needed funds in the short term, as well as support some of the team who suddenly found themselves having to work their usual hours from home while caring for and home-schooling their children.
After an all-staff meeting to layout the process, I received an email asking me to meet with my manager and our team director. I knew what was coming.
I cried during that meeting. It wasn’t so much about being furloughed per se. If anything, I was relieved because combining work and childcare is impossible. I was shattered. Instead, I was upset because being furloughed crystallised everything that I hated about lockdown. My job is my independence, a space for me where I use my skills, chat with colleagues and contacts and not have to answer to ’mummy!’ every two minutes.
I even valued my pre-lockdown commute, squished as it was, as a space for me to listen to my favourite podcasts, get some steps in and slurp a coffee on the go – all vital for my wellbeing.
The pandemic had snatched all of this away from me.
A feeling of loss
My colleague Uzma Afridi, Nabs’s head of careers, says that feeling this kind of loss after furlough is like grieving. “It’s important to recognise and deal with this by accepting what’s happened. Talk to someone about how you feel; this is a way of processing grief, the loss of something, so that you can move forward when you eventually return to work.” I cried some more, spoke to a workmate and my husband, comforted myself with tea and chocolate and a couple of days later I got some perspective.
My employers were brilliant and empathetic. They clarified that this was not personal, that they valued my work. What’s more, they encouraged me to view furlough as a break from work, recognising that I’ve been dealing with a lot: not just caring for my toddler, but also supporting my parents through my dad’s horrendous journey with lung cancer. With perspective, I knew they were right. Something had to give. Furlough allowed work to temporarily be that something.
I spent seven weeks on furlough and got into the rhythm of things after the first week or so, swapping deadlines and writing for snacks and playtime with Amber. Childcare is hard work: respect to my daughter’s teachers. By the time Nabs asked me to return, Amber’s nursery had reopened and we were both ready for our new normal. Amber missed her little friends and I missed writing and office chat, now enjoyed on Teams.
The transition back to work
My managers supported my transition to work with informal weekly phone calls in the two weeks leading up to my return, where they checked in with my wellbeing. In my first week back, my manager and I had a formal one-to-one where I caught up on what work I’d missed and what was coming up. It was also a space for me to discuss how I was feeling about returning to work and for my manager to ask what I needed to ensure a smooth transition. This was all vital and stopped me feeling too much out of the loop.
If you’re returning to work and haven’t been offered any meetings, Afridi advises taking the lead. Arrange a conversation about how you and your manager can create your successful return. She says: “Ask yourself what you need to be confident and ready to work. Don’t let your managers assume what you need. Post-lockdown, organisations are far more open to this kind of discussion.
“Ask if there have been any changes; the pandemic has forced a lot of businesses to change what they’re doing. Are there new objectives to work to? It can take courage to have this kind of conversation, but it’s worth it as it will show you’re committed to work.”
To help build that courage, you could consider speaking with a work buddy or having coaching. I had coaching with Nabs when I started working here after a long maternity leave – not dissimilar to returning from furlough – and it helped to build up my confidence after a long time out of the workplace.
Lockdown has been a very odd time. Like many people, I’ve felt anxious. When it first started, I remember lying in bed, feeling physically suffocated at the thought of the months ahead. I cried when Boris announced that schools would close. I’ve spent this year dealing with family challenges in a pandemic and have lost a lot of sleep to worries and nightmares.
With that in mind, it’s no surprise that it took me a good fortnight to get back into the rhythm of work after furlough and I will admit to feeling invisible on my first group calls. Confident work me needed coaxing out. Luckily I was able to discuss this with my team and I felt boosted by their understanding. I was patient with myself and after achieving a couple of good results I felt like work me again.
Afridi supports the patient approach, saying that avoiding burnout is key: “It’s tempting to get back to work and feel as though you need to work all the hours to ‘prove yourself’. This won’t work. Be realistic about your workload and what you can do and discuss that with your manager. Then, you’ll have a sustainable approach that will help you to go from furlough to work while caring for your wellbeing.“