By Harriet Clifford
Being furloughed feels like a reminder that things can continue without me.
"It could be worse”; it’s the phrase I’ve been quick to throw in whenever I’ve told anyone this past week that I’ve been furloughed. And of course, it’s very true. I could have been sacked, I could be self-employed and unsure when my next job will come in, or I could be a single parent trying to feed three kids on a meagre amount of Universal Credit. Yes, it definitely could be a lot worse.
But, that doesn’t change the fact that I’ve been in my graduate job for roughly six months and I’ve suddenly been told not to work for an indefinite period of time. This will probably be the case for many of us twenty-somethings, as it makes perfect sense for a company in financial difficulty to furlough its most recent employees, as we can be kept on and still receive 80% of our salaries from the government.
In many ways, we’re lucky. If this furlough scheme hadn’t been launched then most of us would be out of a job by now.
And yet, if I moaned about my kitchen table desk when we were first told to stay at home, now I scroll longingly through picture-perfect #workfromhome set-ups on Instagram, wishing I could still sign off my emails with “Best wishes and stay safe”.
In this strange world we’re living in, work was the only thing keeping me sane – I liked the structure, the sense of purpose and the feeling of being productive.
Now that I’m actively being paid not to work, it feels crazy to admit that this isn’t the best thing since sliced bread. In fact, it’s raised a whole bunch of fears, insecurities, worries and doubts, which before were just niggles at the back of my mind. These are probably different for everyone, but here are the four I've felt and here's what I am trying to do about them:
1. My job is pointless. If you’ve ever been struck by the realisation that the world would keep on spinning if your job didn’t exist, then this crisis has probably exacerbated that fear ten-fold. Most of us aren’t “key workers”, don’t save lives and don’t feed people. We sit in little offices writing words or plugging numbers into spreadsheets, hoping that we’re doing something worthwhile.
Being furloughed is basically just a reminder that things can continue without me.
However, I’m trying to remember that even if I’m a small cog, I’m still one part of a bigger machine. My not working will have an impact somewhere, on the company’s profits, on someone else’s workload and on productivity.
My work won’t have just disappeared – someone else will just be picking up the slack. If applying this to your situation makes you feel guilty rather than reassured, then join the club, but think about how grateful your colleagues will be when you come back.
2. I’m bad at my job. It’s hard to accept that the people at the head of my company sat around a table (or, more likely,had a conference call) and made the decision that my work does not have a significant enough impact on the business to keep me on. Unsurprisingly, this has thrown up every little fear I’ve ever had about not doing a good job.
The imposter syndrome that I’ve finally got a hold on after six months has yet again reared its ugly head.
All the mistakes I’ve ever made at work are coming back to haunt me, and I’m left wondering whether any of them had a bearing on the decision. Then I try to rationalise. If I was bad at my job, this crisis would have been the perfect opportunity to let me go. Instead, under huge financial pressure, my company has done everything it can to preserve my job, even though I’ve only been doing it for half a year. Apologies for echoing the official email you undoubtedly received, but furloughing employees is simply a money-saving exercise and has no reflection on your quality of work.
3. I have no hobbies. Suddenly having all this free time is a shock to the system. I’m used to a reasonably early morning, a 45-minute commute, a busy day, a run home, a work or social event in the evening and a flop into bed at the end of it all. Others are used to much longer commutes and even longer working hours.
During the working week, I’m often wishing I had more free time, so I could get on with ‘x’ project or take up ‘y’ as a hobby. Now that I can, I realise that I don’t know where to start.
Of course, it’s made doubly difficult by the fact that we can’t go out and can’t do things with other people, but we’ve got to do something with our days stuck indoors – there’s only so much sleeping, Netflix and cleaning one person can do. At the same time, your hobby doesn’t have to be productive. It doesn’t have to result in a Pinterest-worthy sketchbook or a full set of knitted accessories. A hobby can be as simple as doing jigsaws, reading a book or listening to podcasts.
4. If I don’t write a novel on furlough then I’ve failed. In the week that I’ve been furloughed, I’ve had a growing feeling that I’m going to need something to show for myself at the end of all this. I need to have written a book, filled a sketchbook, learnt a language or have a statement of participation from the Open University. If I don’t do any of these things, then I’ll have wasted an opportunity and failed use this time for “personal development”. Well, maybe personal development for me looks like learning to allow myself a lie-in, watch TV in the day and finally try one of the face masks I’ve been hoarding since 2013. Maybe for you it does look like learning all the capital cities in South America, but either way it’s fine.
If you were genuinely quite enjoying your grad job, being furloughed feels like a kick in the teeth.
You were probably finally feeling settled, ready to accept that pay-rise and just about holding it all together. Now you’re wondering what to do with your time and worrying whether you’ll even have a job left when this is all over. Remember you’re one of many twenty-somethings in the same boat, weathering the storm with varying degrees of dignity. Best wishes and stay safe.
Image by unknown Pinterest artist.