It’s strange to think that a month ago ‘furlough’ was not a word in common use and now it is part of our daily conversations.
Prospect represents more than 147,000 members across the economy; we have a significant membership in public service but predominantly our members are in the private sector. A growing section of the union is self-employed and freelance, particularly in the creative, film and TV sector.
Our members in aviation, heritage and the creative sector have been particularly hit by the crisis, with income deprivation to some extent being the common feature. The self-employed and freelance areas have been exposed by nature of their labour markets and the limits of the income subsidy schemes announced by government.
Like most unions we have moved centre stage with levels of engagement with government that are as unprecedented as the crisis itself. The vast majority of good employers have worked with us about how to conduct furlough, manage safety and wellbeing, and devise workplace responses that comply with government lockdown strictures.
As ever there are outliers whose prior preference for diktat has simply been more evident than usual.
Our breadth of experience means we have assembled some good evidence of how to handle furlough; primarily, that while this is an economic response, it has much broader organisational considerations.
The first key decision has been whether furlough covers some or all staff? If it is all staff, then with ‘everyone in it together’ the messaging and management is to a degree easier.
Furloughing segments of the workforce is more complicated and if not handled sensitively, can evoke negative sentiments around the ‘value’ placed on those furloughed. Are they seen as ‘less valuable’ for the future? Are they more dispensable if the crisis is prolonged and effectively in a departure lounge?
Partial workforce furlough also stimulates tensions about workload between those still working and those furloughed. Depending on how long the lockdown lasts, these issues are set to multiply and intensify, as the initial organisational adrenaline which supported moves to remote working and the crisis response, gives way to fatigue and comparisons of treatment.
How will leave be treated on furlough? If you don’t require staff to take some leave, what about those still working who have to take leave to obtain a break? And let’s not forget about the somewhat rarefied legal debate currently ongoing, which is asking whether any leave in this period fits with the underlying tenets of the working time directive.
The second big furlough issue is whether it is on full pay or not. If furlough is not on full pay what are the financial and other worries this brings to staff?
While furlough is undoubtedly preferable to dismissal, prolonged income reduction particularly for those in lower paid roles produces self-evident worries.
It is not a stretch to assume that such people may also be living in more modest circumstances where lockdown has a greater impact on them and their families. This is a toxic cocktail of pressure which will show itself in other social challenges and the evidence of rising domestic abuse is hugely troubling.
While it may appear these are mainly HR issues, they are in fact all contributing to a huge and as yet unquantifiable, workplace mental health and wellbeing challenge. We are already seeing evidence of some of the tensions described above and seeking to work with employers to address them. They create some immediate work process challenges all of which exacerbate in proportion to the lockdown period.
As ever, communication is key. The strict cessation of work parameters of the job retention scheme must not prevent keeping in touch with furloughed staff; keeping their contact with colleagues and knowing the plans ahead. This is the key mitigation strategy that needs clarity of purpose and constant review.
Finally, this is a time for reaching collective agreement with unions and workplace representatives. From the perspective of Prospect we regard this as a time for leadership not leverage. But that approach is conditional on high quality engagement, which to be fair, the best employers already know is definitely a lesson to be learned from this time.
Mike Clancy is general secretary of Prospect trade union
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