What lessons can we learn from furlough for managing future social shocks? 

Members of the research team for the COVID-19 Longitudinal Health and Wellbeing National Core Study at University College London say that furlough was useful in protecting mental health, but not without its drawbacks.

Dr Charlotte Booth, Dr Bozena Wielgoszewska, and Dr Wels Jacques

When the pandemic struck, the UK did not have an existing scheme to provide workers with support during times of economic difficulty, so the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, aka furlough, was set up from scratch.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 25% of workers were furloughed at some point, with the number peaking at 8.9 million people in May 2020.

Researchers in the UK have since been studying the effects of this large social and economic intervention on the population’s health and wellbeing, for the first time.

So beyond successfully reducing unemployment, what were its other knock on effects?

Across three research papers, we show that the UK furlough scheme was successful in protecting not only people’s jobs, but also their health.

That said, mental distress was higher in those who became furloughed compared to those who remained working. This is a useful lesson for those involved in creating policies that aim to mitigate the effects of future social shocks, such as through further disease epidemics or risks posed by climate change.

Key takeaways for policymakers

In these circumstances, swift action is needed to protect population health and wellbeing, through employment schemes.

  • Schemes introduced to protect jobs are entirely necessary and should be designed in such a way to reduce stress and anxiety for those affected.
  • They should be easily accessible and inclusive to everyone, such as those employed and self-employed.
  • More careful consideration about the mental health implications of economic policies is needed, as these can have long-lasting effects.
  • Providing support through networks and communities, reducing uncertainty about when the scheme is likely to end & how long it will last, etc, will all be helpful.
  • The world is moving towards more flexible working environments, such as ‘working from home’. We need to be mindful about how this may and may not work for everyone, e.g., those whose homes are overcrowded. This is an area for future research.

What more needs to be done in this research space, and how can it better be communicated to policymakers?

The COVID-19 pandemic was unexpected, meaning that government and businesses had to act quickly to protect jobs. Going forward, it is imperative that we learn from our experiences and have policies in place to deal with potential future shocks, to avoid being caught off guard.

The UK furlough scheme was successful but did take a toll on participants’ wellbeing. Research will continue to follow these people to investigate the long-term effects of furlough on health and economic outcomes.

Research background

The researchers compared health outcomes between those who remained working (50%) during this period, with (a) those who were furloughed (15%), (b) those who had become unemployed since the start of the pandemic (4%), and (c) those who were unemployed before and during the pandemic (3%). A variety of different health outcomes were explored, and findings were written up as a series of three separate research papers:

Please find links to our research papers, here, here and here.

The first paper looked at unhealthy behaviours and found that furlough had minimal effects on changes to smoking, vaping, or alcohol consumption, compared to those who remained working. Although, slightly higher rates of smoking were observed in women who became furloughed.

The second paper looked at healthy behaviours and found that furlough had minimal effects on changes to sleep and diet compared with those who remained working but increased levels of physical activity were reported in those who became furloughed.

The third paper looked at mental and social wellbeing and found that furlough had negative impacts on levels of psychological distress, loneliness, self-rated health, and overall life satisfaction. However, levels of mental and social wellbeing were even lower in those who either became or remained unemployed, suggesting that furlough provided at least some degree of protection against declining mental health, relative to not having a job.

The research team used data from more than 25,000 people, who were already taking part in multiple large nationally representative longitudinal studies, and who completed surveys about their experiences of COVID-19 in the early stages of the pandemic (April–June 2020).

For more information about the work of this research team, please email charlotte.booth@ucl.ac.uk.