Sustainability and CSR professionals: What to do if you've been furloughed

Being furloughed as a sustainability professional can make you question how important your role, and indeed the sustainability agenda is to a business. Here, edie outlines how to handle being furloughed from a mental and professional standpoint.

There's no blueprint for responding to being furloughed, but there are certainly some ways that the challenge can be turned into an opportunity

There's no blueprint for responding to being furloughed, but there are certainly some ways that the challenge can be turned into an opportunity

Over the past month, many professionals working in the sustainability sphere have seen projects and strategies delayed, funding slashed and outputs refocused as part of a global corporate response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Many businesses have taken the tough decision to furlough some, if not all, of their sustainability departments, in an attempt to temporarily shrink the wage bill and stay afloat during a period of dramatic economic downturn.

At a personal level, being furloughed – whereby employees stay on the payroll but aren’t able to work for their organisation – can deliver up a range of reactions, from being insulted, unsure about future job security, or even doubting whether your organisation values your role. These are all perfectly acceptable feelings, and with more of the UK workforce expected to be placed onto furlough over the coming weeks, edie has spoken to some anonymous CSR professionals who have been furloughed to get their insight on how they’ve coped.

Firstly, it’s worth noting that if you’ve been furloughed, you are most certainly not alone. According to the BBC, at least 185,000 firms applied to access the Government’s furlough scheme when it opened in March, affecting an estimated 1.3 million works.

In fact, it is believed that 25% of businesses issued a temporary closure or shutdown during the first two weeks of lockdown, while those that have stayed open have furloughed an average of 21% of their staff. The latest stage of the scheme opened earlier this week and runs at least until the end of June, meaning more could be furloughed going forward.

Anonymous advice

For the CSR professionals we spoke to, many were expecting their role to be furloughed, but that didn’t make the announcement any harder to deal with. One professional noted; “From a mental health perspective, I was worried and it took a few days to get my head around it.”

The key for many furloughed workers was settling into some sort of routine. Many noted exercise as a great stress reliever, while to-do lists gave them a sense of purpose. A select few had children to look after and were sinking a lot of time into that as a result. Others were using the free time to catch up on passions such as reading, but many noted that they were keen to keep focusing on sustainability, rather than pressing pause on the subject.

Your home conditions are likely to impact your mood. Some are cooped up in small flats with no gardens, while others have a newfound appreciation for that private outdoor space. Many recommended “stepping away from the panic” and negatively that is swirling around social media right now, instead using the time to focus on aspects they can control.

Many people, not just in the CSR sector, are reaching out to friends and work colleagues who have also been furloughed to form support groups. One person we spoke to had reached out to other sustainability professionals from other organisations to maintain focus on the long-term CSR agenda through frequent catch-ups.

Many were using the time to focus on personal development, but that doesn't translate to constant productivity.

“It’s important not to put yourself under too much pressure.,” one professional recently told edie. “You may never experience another period where you’re paid not to work, so resting and relaxing is more than fine.”

Some of the other sustainability professionals we spoke to had reached out to charities (many of which are still on the frontline during this pandemic) to assist, while others will still be keen to focus on sustainability as they assist charities and non-profits.

Another told edie that, after the initial shock, she's now started viewing the furlough period as an “opportunity to upskill yourself”. Indeed, the infancy of the sustainability profession means a lot of workers bounce around from organisation to organisation after relatively short periods of time; upskilling yourself is a way to improve a CV or gain more knowledge on an area of the extremely broad CSR spectrum you’re less in tune with, but may have to focus on going forward.

Risk analysis, adaptation and human rights are all themes that are likely to climb the corporate agenda moving forward and many of them will fall into the CSR department’s remit. Getting to grips with those concepts now may help you hit the ground running when you return to work.

Long-term view

It is important to remember that sustainability is very different to other business functions as it is inherently a long-term focus, whereas many other workers are dealing with much shorter lead times and have been much more disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak as a result.

“It's an opportunity to reset and re-plan and see how this would impact the business and our sustainability strategy,” another professional advised.

It may be surprising that a department that is largely focused on community and outreach would have workers furloughed, but one professional noted that their business had to focus on short-term production and selling, as such, they understood why the CSR team had been temporarily paused.

Of course, now is also a perfectly acceptable time to examine and review just how seriously your organisation values environmental and social sustainability.

Some companies have had their reputation tarred by how they’ve treated their staff during the Covid-19 outbreak, but many have made commendable decisions to assist frontline workers by producing protective equipment.

On the environmental front, it may be wise to wait until CSR programmes, reporting and initiatives are back up and running to see if the organisation has changed its focus. Either way, learning new skills via webinars, is a great way to update the CV if you do decide to move on after the pandemic.

The new normal

One thing that is clear, regardless of being furloughed or not, is that things won’t go back to "normal" after this. Ways of working have become more digital and the economy still needs to be stimulated.

For this feature, edie reached out to David Picton, former Carillion chief sustainability officer and now managing director of Hengist Inspired. Picton's military background has enabled him and others to articulate ‘coping mechanisms’ and transform them into forward momentum.

“Some may be thinking that being furloughed risks redundancy when the ‘new normal’ emerges, but there’s no evidence to support that at the moment,” Picton told edie. “If the ‘new normal’ does mean that they have to find a new job, the best thing they can do (now) is to make sure they are keeping themselves in the best shape to be a first-class candidate at that time.

“But – if they return to their old role (which many will) – then that preparation will also leave them well-equipped to help their organisation get up and running quickly.”

As to what this “new normal” may look like, Picton believes that communities will need “massive help to re-build through social sustainability”, of which many furloughed workers have been brilliant in rushing to volunteer.

Mainly, now is the time to look at the global economic and social impacts of the coronavirus and view the role of sustainability in delivering a just response. Now is a good time to explore how your organisation may have to evolve to answer the post-pandemic question of “what needs to happen now?”

“The ‘new normal’ will need articulate, professional advocates to translate unprecedented evidence, data and proof-points from lockdown into ‘what needs to happen now’. More than ever, businesses will need their sustainability professionals to bring savings to life quickly for economic sustainability and to help the bottom-line,” Picton added.

Matt Mace



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