Pandemic & the Dignity of Furloughed Workers

The pandemic was a challenging time to work through. For “key workers” it involved continuing as normal, albeit with an intensification of workload and complex rules and regulations creating confusion, frustration and added stress. For academics (somehow also classified as key workers during the pandemic!) this involved working from home and perhaps our most complicated task involved shifting teaching online in a short period of time and attempting to continue research projects (where possible) remotely. There were, however, a huge number of workers in the UK who were told they would not continue working whilst the country wrestled to take control of a novel coronavirus that was creating devastation amongst vulnerable sections of the population. In March 2020 a furlough scheme called the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme was launched to help employers to support and retain staff whilst they were closed. It was agreed that furloughed workers would be paid up to £2500 per month to “stay home, protect the NHS [and] save lives” and by May 2020 8.9 million were being asked to do so. In total, the scheme ran for 18 months until the end of September 2021 and cost upwards of £70 billion pounds.

It was during this rather stressful period in our recent history that my excellent colleagues Dr Peter Hamilton (Durham University) and Dr Oonagh Harness (Northumbria University) carried out interviews with 26 individuals who took part in the furlough scheme. Whereas the wider public perception was that the furloughed workers must be having a fabulous time being paid to stay off work, the implications for those who experienced it were much more complex. The study explores these complexities attempting to understand the effects on the dignity of the furloughed workers during (as one participant put it) the “corona-coaster” ride of being asked to leave your workplace during a period when many others were being asked to work longer and more difficult hours than ever before.

My role on this paper, as a third author, was to act as a friendly challenger of the data and its interpretations and contribute to the writing process. One of the nice things about writing with different teams is that sometimes you can take the lead (collecting data, leading on drafts etc) other times you can play a supportive and challenging role, contributing to drafts and redrafts as a paper takes shape. The best thing to do, from my experience anyway, is to have a nice balance of these approaches, whilst also pursuing writing projects on your own where possible as well. The findings of this study have just been published in Industrial Relations Journal and the article (almost certainly inspired by Peter’s love of David Byrne/Talking Heads) is entitled “Life during furlough: Challenges to dignity from a changed employment status”. The abstract of the paper is as follows:

In response to the COVID-19 virus, the UK government introduced the Job Retention Scheme in March 2020. The scheme, a novelty in the United Kingdom, provided income support to those furloughed from work. In this paper, we examine how individuals in several occupations and organisations experienced furlough and how they were treated during this enforced period of work absence. Beyond describing their experiences during the furlough, we examine how these experiences threatened and challenged their sense of dignity. Experientially we report on furlough as a time that elicited both delight and despair. The analysis of dignity relates to how treatment based on their employment status rendered many employees marginalised and cast adrift.

Whilst we hope that there is never any need for such a widespread furlough in this country (at least any time soon!), we hope that the results can help tell the story of those who went through this difficult sudden adjustment in their working lives. Finally, we also hope that it can help further understand how people’s experience of dignity or indignity can be intricately tied to their working or non-working conditions often with unforeseen and unknowable consequences. 

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