Once workers were furloughed as a result of the pandemic, many reevaluated their career decisions.
Before having her two sons, Karen was working as a legal secretary, but once her children started school, she decided to do a psychology degree with the Open University.
“That wasn’t really with any kind of particular plan, because I’ve never known what I wanted to do. But it was just to help me to do something better and I was going to look at starting a proper career,” says Karen.
However, things took a different turn when she divorced her ex-husband. Her sons visit their father every other weekend, so with two kids on her own and a mortgage to pay, she needed to find a job quickly. This led Karen to her taking a part-time job in customer services in an accounting firm.
Then, the pandemic hit and the first lockdown was announced.
The day before furlough was announced, Karen was contacted by her employer who told her she was being laid off. She would still be employed, but without getting paid.
“It was an incredibly stressful time and I was really worried about it. And then, I was extremely grateful when the next day furlough was announced, so I was put on furlough and at least I had 80% of my pay,” recalls Karen.
Following workingmums.co.uk latest survey of 1,300 working mums, 21% of respondents were furloughed during the pandemic, with 48% of them only in the first lockdown, whilst 22% were furloughed throughout. The survey also shows that 43% were more anxious about their job because of being furloughed, 37% were more anxious about their finances and 32% said they had re-evaluated their lives as a result.
Karen was furloughed at the begging of the pandemic, but later continued working from home for the accounting company. At first, when she went back to work she struggled getting into a routine that could enable her to balance her job and homeschooling.
“During the first lockdown I was on furlough, so I wasn’t working and I could help them, but the second time that I was homeschooling, I was working as well and that was incredibly stressful,” says Karen.
“That was really hard work, especially because my youngest would be sitting next to me and we would both be working from the dining room table and he would get bored. He didn’t want to just stare at a screen, learning all the time and he needed one-on-one help, but at the same time I had work that I needed to do,” she adds.
At that the time, even though she was meant to work only part time, Karen was actually overworking, following a full-time schedule. When stress started overwhelming her, she realised the situation was getting out of control and she needed a change. Working from home gave her the possibility to work at different times than the usual office ones and she managed to create a healthier routine to work around her kids.
However, being firstly laid off and then furloughed made Karen question her future in the first months of the pandemic.
“I’d worked very hard for that firm and I felt like they were being very disloyal to me doing that. I understand it was their business model that as soon as things start to look worrying, they chop admin staff. But I was very disappointed by that,” says Karen.
She adds: “That really spurred me into thinking that actually I deserve more than this, I deserve better than this, and being treated like this, because I’ve worked very hard for them.”
She started to look elsewhere, but it was difficult to find something that could match her busy, single mum schedule. Although, she has friends who help her out with her sons, she struggles with consistent support as her family does not live nearby and childcare is more expensive per hour than what she was earning. Also, it was difficult to find a part-time job nearby to avoid wasting too much time commuting.
However, there were some silver linings in the pandemic. First, being furloughed, for Karen meant taking back control of her life and her career. The opening up of more remote jobs allowed her to apply for roles she never thought could suit her schedule. 49% of the workingmums.co.uk survey’s respondents said they were more likely to change their career plans due to Covid and 22% said they would change their jobs.
When recalling her first few months of work during the pandemic, Karen says: “I think about the fear I felt at being laid off at the beginning of it. I didn’t want to lose my job because I own my own house. I have a mortgage that I need to pay and if I lose my job, I lose that and this was always my worry – that it only takes one thing for me to lose everything.”
“It’s like a house of cards, I’m at the bottom and the whole lot is going to come down, and I suppose my worry is what kept me going, and then maybe as a result I worked extra hard to prove I can do it,” she explains.
But all of the hours extra hours she spent working mixed with the feeling of her efforts not being appreciated by her employers made her realise that not only was it time for a change, but that she could work full time as long as it was remote.
“It just made me realise that actually I can do this. I don’t need to be constantly scared about not being able to pay my mortgage and I can take that leap,” says Karen.
That’s when she decided to apply for a different job and eventually secured her current one with the Department for Work and Pensions. She says: “I’m incredibly pleased, I doubled my salary overnight and it came with lots of benefits. This is only a 12-month contract, which I never have had the guts to go for before. I would have thought that’s way too scary and I can’t just have that for a year, that I need a permanent job.”
Although at the moment she has a fixed-term contract, Karen is optimistic about the future. “I’m learning to just go with the flow and that things work out and it will be okay,” she says.
She adds: “I don’t feel so scared about things any more. I feel okay and I felt really proud of myself when I look back at it too, because it was incredibly stressful, but I kept going and I kept changing things until they were a bit better.”