Research published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology has found that furlough has had both good and bad impacts on physical and mental health.
A study conducted by Pennsylvania State University, emlyon business school and the Georgia Institute of Technology compared the health of hospitality workers in the UK and US, a month before and a month after the COVID-19 lockdown was announced. Out of the participants, 44% were put on furlough and 13% worked reduced hours.
COVID-19 lockdowns were implemented in both countries in March 2020. Though rules varied between country and state, many restaurants, bars and hotels shut down to stop the spread of the virus. In the UK, employers had to pay staff on furlough 80% of their usual wages, capped at £2,500 per month.
The study, conducted by Alicia Grandey, Gordon Sayre, and Kimberly French found that experiencing work loss was linked with higher psychological stress. This was due to threatened job and financial security.
Conversely, the study also found that respondents who experienced work loss also reported engaging in more exercise and relaxation. This, in turn, improved psychological and physical health. However, these benefits did not have a lasting effect.
In February 2020, the researchers worked on an unrelated project on hospitality workers. Due to the pandemic, they adapted the effort. As a result, they had data on the same 137 hospitality workers a month before and after the first lockdown was imposed.
Pre-lockdown, respondents rated their general health, how often they slept and stress levels. For the month after the lockdown study, these same questions were asked but focused on the first month of lockdown.
“Having more time for leisure was one positive we observed, but importantly its benefits did not last,” explains Professor Sayre. “In a follow-up survey two months later, we only observed the lingering costs of work loss on psychological stress.”
“Overall these findings demonstrate the complicated reality many hospitality workers faced in the early stages of the pandemic, having more time for leisure but also coping with threats to their job and financial security,” he says. “While work loss is undoubtedly stressful, our results suggest that using that extra time to engage in recovery behaviours like relaxation or practicing a hobby can help minimise the harm to one’s psychological and physical health.”
While furlough has been a lifeline for many hospitality employees and other industry workers, this research highlights the psychological impact having no job or financial security can have on employees. Employers have an obligation to ensure that their workers’ mental health is okay, especially following stressful times such as the COVID-19 lockdowns.