recent international study of more than 2,000 employees conducted in March-April 2020, furloughed workers are 37% more likely to report mental health declines during the pandemic. What are things that weigh heavily in their minds? Some of their concerns are not so obvious.


Here’s the hardest thing about recalling furloughed workers. (Spoiler alert: It’s not the paperwork.)

June 19, 2020

Hooray! After several agonizing weeks (or in some cases, months) you finally were able  to bring your furloughed employees back into stores. Chances are, everybody at Headquarters was relieved and ready for a little semblance of “normal” again. And, sure, HR has their work cut out for them – but they’ve got resources to help. There’s no shortage of procedural checklists and legal jargon and templates and whitepapers out there to give those folks a jump start on all of those processes dealing with benefits, repayment of employee contributions, accumulation of tenure/PTO/vacation, and… you get the point.

But what about the people? What about the people who were directly affected – the people who were actually furloughed? What is their mindset? What’s been their experience during all of this? 

If you weren’t personally furloughed, you may not fully grasp the nuances and complicated emotions that these employees have as your business reopens and brings them back to work. Your employees may even be wondering if it makes sense to return to work.

Unemployment insurance plus the enhanced relief under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) will pay workers about the same or more than their regular wage. Why would they risk catching the virus at work when they can stay home?

Plus, being home is easier because of all the extra responsibilities that are now necessary with kids’ activities and school being canceled. The childcare that many people had before the shutdown often doesn’t exist anymore. Or, they may have at-risk relatives they’re responsible for now. How do they give them daily care if they go back to work?

Other workers might be worried about what work will be like when they return. Since part of their job duties were likely shuffled to someone else during the forced furlough, they’re not sure what they’re going to be doing when they return. They might be worried that they won’t be given a ramp-up period to catch up to all the things that may not have been done at all during the past 2 months.

Assuming you’ve been in touch with your work team members, you may have an idea where their mind is at; or maybe you only think you know. According to a recent international study of more than 2,000 employees conducted in March-April 2020, furloughed workers are 37% more likely to report mental health declines during the pandemic. What are things that weigh heavily in their minds? Some of their concerns are not so obvious.

They might feel isolated and disconnected from co-workers. They might feel excluded, and not as valuable to the company; expendable even. They might distrust the company and not like the way things have been handled. They might be worried that hours might be reduced, or that they might be furloughed again. They might be thinking about finding an essential position so they can have better job security.

As a leader, these may not be concerns you’ve had while working through the shutdown period. But you need to consider that these anxieties may exist in the mind of a furloughed worker. And most importantly, they can shake their confidence and color how they approach the re-entry process. 

Don’t let managers/supervisors of furloughed employees get caught off guard either. They should be aware of these concerns and emotions which are often unspoken but in the minds of these returning employees. Your management team will appreciate having advance conversations about what might bubble up in the wake of getting back to work. Provide assistance or access to any additional resources they may need while rebuilding their work groups, both physically and emotionally. 

Specifically, give your people managers direction to address the following challenges: 

  • Some workers may harbor some resentment or frustrations at being thought of as expendable. It’s happened once – they may be thinking, it easily could happen again if there’s another wave of the virus and shutdowns. How or what can you do to reassure them that it won’t happen again?
  • Some workers may feel lost and totally out of the loop because they’ve missed out on so many weeks/months of work time.  
  • How can you best bring them up to speed? What are the most important things they need to know right now?
  • Are there new company or department goals and performance metrics?
  • How have work processes changed overall? For them specifically?
  • How can they brush the dust off their work skills that have been idle during the furlough? Is there something new they need to be trained on? How do they get access to that immediately?

Without a doubt, there are more concerns and outlooks that will surface as companies get back to business and bring furloughed workers back into the fold. You can be ahead of the curve by considering these points as food for thought while you work through your checklist of to-dos. You will be more aware of and instrumental in blending the human element into the mix.

In her book Dare to Lead, Brené Brown suggests that in our roles as business professionals, we have an opportunity to help people through difficult times by having and using empathy – seeing the situation as they see it. By listening intently to not only what they can verbalize, but also to what they haven’t yet found words for, you can help ease some of the struggle as your furloughed employees re-enter the workplace.

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