What to do if you’re furloughed and feeling like a phony

Jamie Mackenzie suggests a few ways businesses can show furloughed staff they’re still valued during this period of instability.

The world is strange right now and we’re all adapting and finding new ways to create sense where there isn’t any. Yes, the sun still sets and the earth is still spinning, but pretty much everything else has changed.

For the 8.4m on furlough, this might be the longest time they have had without a structured working day, like going back to being a kid, but scary and uncertain. The effect on self-esteem of being without work and not feeling like your role was essential enough to be maintained could trigger some big self-esteem issues, which employers need to be prepared for.

What is impostor syndrome?

Impostor syndrome, according to the OED, is the inability to believe one’s success is merited on the result of legitimate skills or accomplishments. Basically, it’s feeling like a fraud – you could run a law firm, be a surgeon, a Hollywood actor with your face plastered on billboards and still feel like it’s all an act and you’re on the verge of getting caught out.

Maybe, in the past, successful people were perceived as hard, cut-throat, certainly not sensitive and doubting of their achievements, but there is a lot of talk at the moment about insecure overachievers.

Managers shouldn’t shy away from frank conversations about mental health, but it can’t be forced either. Creating an environment where staff feel like they can be open about their struggles is key.

Impostor syndrome is super common, in fact, 62 % of UK adults suffer from this feeling from time to time according to a study by Access Commercial Finance. That’s huge and goes to show that while many appear confident in their roles, it could be a façade.

With increased job insecurity in times of Covid-19 and many experiencing unusual employment circumstances – widespread redundancies and huge numbers temporarily off work as part of the furlough scheme – any feelings of insecurity are likely to be amplified.

The link

The strange and uncertain circumstances of lockdown have already created a mental health crisis. The many surreal features of pandemic life have triggered heightened anxiety, depression and crises of self-confidence, even in people that would not usually suffer these issues.

Being stuck at home, perhaps cooped up with kids or even parents and going gradually stir crazy, coupled with an ever-present but very rational fear of a potentially deadly disease is a recipe for poor mental and emotional wellbeing.

For people on furlough, they have the added ‘bonus’ of heaps of time – heaps of time where they can brood. Furloughed workers might question the importance of their role and perceive the decision to furlough as a personal one.


Anyone already prone to those pesky ‘feeling like a phony’ doubts, might see furlough as confirmation of their fears. The reality is the word furlough wasn’t really in anyone’s vocabulary pre-pandemic. No one knows the long-term effects of prolonged job insecurity and time spent at home without the structure of a working day. This is a social experiment on a massive scale.

Feeling like an impostor could be worse when furloughed staff return. Either coming back to a socially-distanced office that’ll feel like stepping into a Twilight Zone film-set in its weirdness, or a virtual office where everything has an air of the uncanny valley – all the same day-to-day duties, but with a futuristic digital twist.

These returnees will be adjusting to a new and strange environment, having to revive skills that they might feel have gone a tad rusty. They might feel like they’re wearing a work mask, trying to resume a role they’re relearning and fitting back in with a team that has bonded over shared adversity.

How to support staff

Support needs to start during furlough. Furloughed employees shouldn’t feel cast aside, keeping them looped in and invited to any virtual social activities or events will be one way of doing this. Also checking in regularly.

For managers, this will mean picking up the phone and chatting with staff to see how they’re getting on. Managers shouldn’t shy away from frank conversations about mental health, but it can’t be forced either. Creating an environment where staff feel like they can be open about their struggles is key.

Having ‘normal’ conversations over the phone could be nice too. Furloughed staff might be missing the heart-warming camaraderie of workplace chitchat – there’s something very grounding about talking about Netflix or the weekend’s lockdown activities.

Employees will feel more panicky in their roles if they’re given the silent treatment during furlough.

When staff return, they might need to relearn some of their duties. Months off work is a big deal and certain skills could be forgotten, so having a recap and patience during this process will be a way to ease any wobbles and insecurities.

Continuing to recognise employees’ achievements is also key. When staff return, feeling potentially unsuited in their roles, employers will need to ensure they are recognising hard work and accomplishments.

What’s more, employees might try to overcompensate when they return from furlough to prove worthiness in their role and this could lead to burnout and stress, so staff will have to keep an eye out for these kinds of behaviours.

Recognising impostor syndrome in yourself

You might be on furlough or just struggling to stay afloat whilst working in a global pandemic and with that comes self-doubt. Remember to be forgiving – a pandemic isn’t child’s play and we’re all fighting a collective battle at the moment.

Give yourself a break, be kind and don’t demand perfection. The figures indicate impostor syndrome is widespread, so you’re not alone with your feelings, especially within the current climate. However, as an employer, there are ways of making the workplace as comfortable and supportive as possible to make sure we’re all bringing our best selves to work.


About the author

Jamie Mackenzie is director at Sodexo Engage 


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