Furlough ‘stemmed the tide’ of poor mental health during UK lockdown, study suggests

  UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak at a Covid-19 press conference. Sunak is credited with instigating the UK's 'furlough' job retention scheme.  Credit: Number 10

Researchers say the UK government should ask employers to share out reduced hours rather than lose workers, in order to mitigate a looming mental health crisis as furlough is rolled back.

Furloughing workers, as well as reducing worker hours, has helped to stem the tide of mental health problems expected to result from the coronavirus crisis, according to a team of sociologists led by the University of Cambridge.

A new study suggests that UK workers who were furloughed or moved from full- to part-time hours during April and May had around the same risk for poor mental health as those who kept working full-time.

However, people who lost all paid work were twice as likely to fall into an “at risk” category for poor mental health, compared to those furloughed or still working any number of hours.

In fact, data from May suggests that well over half of those who lost all work during the Covid-19 crisis are at risk of mental health problems.

Researchers led by the Cambridge-based Employment Dosage Project say the UK government must encourage employers to “cut hours not people” as furlough schemes wrap up, or face significantly worse levels of mental health across the population as unemployment soars.

They argue that the UK should emulate ‘short-time working’ schemes used by many European nations. These schemes reduce and share out working hours to keep far more people in some kind of employment during a crisis.

“Holding on to some paid work is vital to wellbeing during the pandemic,” said Prof Brendan Burchell from Cambridge’s Department of Sociology. “We can see that both short working hours and furlough job retention schemes have helped protect against the deterioration of mental health.”

“Labour market interventions such as short-time working are more affordable than furloughing, and much less likely to cause lasting damage to the UK’s mental health than the all-or-nothing job shedding currently taking place,” Burchell said.

“As well as the individual misery caused, the costs of poor mental health to the UK’s productivity and health service are vast, and cannot be afforded at this critical time. We urge the Chancellor to tell employers to cut hours not people.”

The latest research involved academics from the universities of Cambridge, Salford, Leeds and Manchester, and is now online as a working paper from Cambridge’s Centre for Business Research.

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Image:  UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak at a Covid-19 press conference. Sunak is credited with instigating the UK's 'furlough' job retention scheme.

Credit: Number 10

Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge


The University of Cambridge is acknowledged as one of the world's leading higher education and research institutions. The University was instrumental in the formation of the Cambridge Network and its Vice- Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, is also the President of the Cambridge Network.

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