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Furlough and my mental health

For those furloughed during the pandemic, losing routine, structure and certainty over money and housing has had a profound effect on their mental health. Kim from Southampton shares her story.

Being furloughed for so long feels endless and very much out of your control. 

I have been on furlough for about 9 months. From mid March-mid September, and then from the end of December to current day. It made my mental health very up and down; with some weeks being better than others.

The beginning was very hard with a lot of uncertainty and anxiety, however, I've managed to adapt over the months and worked out what works for me to stay well while on furlough. It's important for me to say now that this wasn’t instant... I had to try a few different things before getting it right.

In the beginning, all the uncertainty was really overwhelming and I found that being on social media like facebook, twitter and instagram made it worse. I deleted social media apps from my phone to make it harder to access and it made it easier. This helped massively, and it is actually something I still have in place now all these months later.

At the beginning I was so anxious about how it would work and if I would have enough money to pay rent or bills. I started saving from my previous pay so that I had a ‘buffer’ in case I needed it, but I knew that this money wouldn’t last the whole time being on furlough. That was incredibly stressful and it did impact me a lot. No one thought that the first lockdown would last so long and so no one knew what to expect. Once I had my first furlough pay and saw that it wasn’t as bad as expected, my anxiety lessened. I still continued to save what I could in case of emergencies, but it was easier to budget and plan ahead.

At my job I work shifts, so I didn’t have a set routine before being furloughed. I was always swapping between working late and early, and I never got up or went to bed at a certain time, it was always changing. This was something I knew I had to improve once I was furloughed, because although my body was used to sleeping during the day and working at night, I'd never be able to take advantage of the things that can me feel better, like sunshine, fresh air and chats with loved ones.

This was something I found difficult to begin with; I wasn’t sleeping well and I was struggling to find a routine but I luckily had my sister to help me. We together agreed that I would start getting up at 9am when she was starting work, and I would make sure that I went to bed before 11pm. This routine and structure has helped a lot and overall made being on furlough much easier. I also use the extra time I had during the day to eat set meals at “normal” times, and to experiment with new recipes that I might not have had the time for before. All of these new routine changes helped and made me feel better in general.

My workplace has been amazing while being on furlough. They do two newsletters weekly that have really helped me feel connected while not physically being at work. The first one is where they tell us any company news we need to know and update us on what people have been getting up to while on furlough - fun stuff like baking, crafts, film or TV recommendations. The second is a wellness newsletter, with helpful tips and advice to ensure that we are looking after ourselves. They also offer details for an employee assistance helpline, that is an anonymous number that we can ring and discuss with the people things that we may need support with. 

Keeping in contact with my work colleagues and friends has been key to feeling supported. Not only are we in the same boat and understand that we are all going through it together, but we can offer each other advice and support like we would do if we were at work. It’s also a massive help to have that social element that I know lots of people have missed while being furloughed. We went from seeing these people daily, to not seeing them for months.

I am generally a very anxious person but I made sure that while on furlough I continued to use tools I already knew help me deal with my anxiety normally. I wrote a lot of lists and kept track of things I wanted and needed to do to stop the weeks just rolling into one another.

Doing this meant that I didn’t have to worry about remembering things and I could concentrate on other stuff. I found getting into reading to be a massive help; escaping into a book was something that took my mind off the current situation and my anxiety and was something I enjoyed a lot. When first put on furlough, As time moved on, I found myself getting anxious about furlough related things that I had never been worried about before, such as running out of time to complete tasks before going back to work, or trying to make the most of the time I had while on furlough. I had never experienced anxiety about something like this before as this was a new situation, but it improved as time went on and I worked on my coping tools.

The nice weather during summer was lovely, and it was a nice change from when I was first put on furlough in the winter. I spent a lot of time outside in the garden, just making sure that if I could do what I was doing outside, then I was. Of course, that was harder as it got into winter again and I found the weather impacting my SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) but going out for walks when I felt up to it to get some fresh air has been a nice escape. They weren’t always long walks but just getting out safely where you can will help you feel less trapped and isolated while on furlough.

When I was low, I acknowledged that I was feeling that way, didn’t try to fight it and just tried to make sure that I was keeping busy doing things I enjoy, simple things like colouring, reading, watching TV, baking and not letting the sadness overwhelm me, but not ignoring it either. 

Being on furlough for so long has had its challenges; it has been very difficult at times and not as easy as some people might think it sounds. I found it a lot harder at the beginning but as time has gone on, it has been easier to adapt to the situation. There is still a lot of uncertainty, and I still have no end date for when I will go back to work (or even if this is the last time I will be furloughed) but over these last 9 months I have worked really hard to find coping methods to make sure that I come out of furlough in the best mental position I can and with new tools that will help me in the future.

It’s not all bad; and there have been positives to being on furlough. All this extra time has meant I have had so much time to do the things I enjoy - I had my best reading year ever last year, and I have discovered recipes that are now my new favourites. Every situation has ups and downs, and the last 9 months on furlough have been no different.

Solent Mind's top tips for coping with furlough 

Stay in touch
Like Kim says, going through a shared experience like furlough can help you stay connected. Start Whatsapp groups with your workmates or check in with each other regularly to keep your spirits up. 

Make the most of daylight
Continuing to adhere to your working hours will help you make the most of the day. Getting fresh air and regular exercise are key components for our mental wellbeing, giving you the clarity needed to cope with the events being thrown at you. It will also make you sleep better.

Be honest with your employer
It might feel scary, but being open about how you're feeling emotionally can help your employers explore how best to support you: this situation is new for them, too! 

Do what is right for you
Are you social media feeds full of people doing ambitious DIY projects or learning a new language? This might be enjoyable for them, but don't put pressure on yourself to do the same. Like Kim, discover and enjoy the things that personally keep you happy.

Limit your news intake
Endless rolling news coverage and the following debate on social media can make us overwhelmed by what goes on around us. If you want to keep up to date, pick a 10 minute slot within your day to visit a news website or watch on TV.

Be kind to yourself
Getting through a pandemic and all the changes it brings is a big deal. Give yourself credit and be proud of your achievements, even if they are simply brushing your teeth or do the washing up. We have good days and bad days… if home-schooling, remembering bin day or simply getting out of bed is beyond you today, tomorrow is another opportunity to try again.

Let go of things you can't change 
A useful mindset to adapt to, is that although we may not be able to control what happens around us, we can control how we respond to it. Focus on what you can do for yourself or your workmates to make things easier and give it a go.

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