Friends On Furlough: How Coronavirus Shapes Socialising

Photographed by Serena Brown
I went to the pub on Monday night (Monday! The most sacred of all the school nights!) and drank, by my calculations, a bottle of wine before returning home to raid my fridge just before midnight. As someone who needs a solid eight hours every night (preferably nine) and spent several years doing a hefty commute to the office, the idea of this would have curled my toes, pre-pandemic.
Monday evenings, though, just don’t command the same respect after you’ve been made redundant.
This newfound sense of freedom only goes so far, of course. Sure, I could stay up late but I had to covertly text my boyfriend while at the bar to ask him to put a tenner in my barren account. And spending the next day lamenting being so weak-natured as to go out when I have no regular income felt anything but freeing. 
Truth be told, I’ve been out a handful of times with friends, knowing I shouldn’t be there. That I should be saving what cash I do have for the less exciting pursuit of paying my bills. Now that we're on different schedules and have different budgets, with some of us on furlough, some working harder than ever and some finding themselves suddenly unemployed, socialising can feel like rocky ground and finding your footing on it is almost impossible. 
Mine is a common story. During the pandemic more than 9 million workers have been furloughed on reduced pay, 650,000 of us have become unemployed since March and more still have lost their regular hours. Meanwhile, many of those who have worked through the chaos of the COVID-19 crisis are having to graft like they’ve never grafted before, in the absence of so many of their colleagues. 

During the pandemic more than 9 million workers have been furloughed on reduced pay, 650,000 of us have become unemployed since March and more still have lost their regular hours.

It’s only now that I’ve begun to realise the significance of the schedules and incomes in my social circles. Historically, we’ve earned similar amounts and worked similar hours and, while my friendships are absolutely based on more than circumstance, these commonalities definitely helped keep them sustainable. 
Now, though, that’s all changed. Lots of us are having to pipe up and tell still-employed pals that socialising needs to come without overheads. Others will be hunched over laptops during the day, watching group WhatsApp conversations fill with non-working friends making daytime plans while they’re stuck indoors. Others are returning to work from furlough as our still-working mates are being laid off. And when we do manage to get together, many of us will have to repeat more times than is ideal that no, we still haven’t found a job. It’s no wonder, really, that the phrase ‘social distancing’ may be taking on a new meaning for some of us. 
Turns out, retreating from friendships is a common side effect of job loss. A US-based study focused on unemployment in the 2008 recession found that more than a third of people (35%) who’d been without work for as little as three months lost contact with close friends – and that figure jumps to 43% for those who’d gone unemployed for six months or more. 
But surely our friendships are crucial in times of crisis? Especially, as psychotherapist Katerina Georgiou explained to me, in an era when we rely on them more than ever. 
"As time has gone by, people move away [from home] more, especially as older adults, so we tend to look to friends to find the support that we would have traditionally had from [family]."

When friends are making plans, if the suggestion is to go to a bar, I usually just say we can meet another time, as I can't justify the money. Sometimes they offer to pay but I don't want to turn up knowing I'll be accepting drinks without any idea of when I can return the favour.

Claire, 30
Friends are likely to play an even more significant role for those who spent their formative years in insecure family environments, too, as "they may well try to create those connections outside of a family space. They can potentially enter into friendships holding some wounds, which may translate into their attachments." 
Withdrawing from the relationships on which our mental wellbeing leans – especially in a time of need – seems counterproductive. Yet many of us do, whether intentionally or not. Outwardly, dynamics have clearly shifted but the potential issues go much further than budgets and timetables: lots is going on in terms of our mental health at times like these. 
As much as the logical side of our brain is aware that being furloughed or made redundant is not personal, it’s not the logical part that tends to shout the loudest, is it? It’s natural to question your worth, to feel embarrassed – however unfounded the feelings. The terminology doesn’t help: ‘redundant’ is loaded with unhelpful connotations of disposability and irrelevance. So we’re going to be more sensitive than usual to friends’ reactions. 
While for the most part, responses to my nugget of personal news were overwhelmingly supportive, some did grate. "What’s next?" was a particular lowlight and had me cursing myself for not having a plan B while in a job I thought was solid and had no plans to leave. 
"You’ll be fine, I’m not worried about you," is another corker, despite the complimentary intention. A friend asserting their lack of concern while you’re riding a mental ghost train of despair can make you wince, regardless of the sentiment. 
Thirty-two-year-old Jamila was furloughed from her PR agency after her team lost their clients, and was eventually made redundant. She counts herself lucky to have a solid circle of close friends and says her news was met by messages of love and encouragement – even if there was the odd curveball. 
"In one of my group WhatsApp chats, one of my really good friends kind of missed my message [about my redundancy] and started speaking about something else," she explains. "I didn’t bring it up again – it’s not easy to talk about. She works in an industry that essentially stopped in March, so I wondered if it just didn’t have the same impact on her."
With all of our friends carrying their own pandemic-related luggage right now, the odd jolting response is understandable. But that doesn’t mean that we, having taken a good old knock in terms of our sense of self, can entirely dismiss it. 
Of course, the most pressing problem we face after losing a job or being put on furlough – once our pride has been checked – is the lack of income. This issue can easily start to permeate our friendships. 
Thirty-year-old Claire has been on furlough since March and, as a flight attendant, has no idea yet if she’ll have a job to go back to. She lives with her boyfriend who was made redundant at the beginning of lockdown. "When friends are making plans, if the suggestion is to go to a bar, we usually just say we can meet another time, as we can't justify the money," she tells me. "Sometimes they offer to pay but I don't want to turn up knowing I'll be accepting drinks without any idea of when I can return the favour."
It’s not just about costly social events though, as Katerina explains. "A loss of income can bring up new issues that maybe we’ve never encountered before with each other, like people asking for money, or people offering money. The subsequent feelings can build resentment or expectations that we perhaps took for granted or never really questioned."
Going from having a steady income to being cash-strapped, from being busy to having little to fill our days, is not without its side effects on our mental health, either. Stress, anxiety and weakening self-worth can all set in without us clocking what’s going on.

Whether we talk about mortality or being made redundant, we're ultimately talking about loss. So we have to consider the grief cycle. It's all about denial and anger and bargaining and acceptance.

Simon Coombs, psychotherapist
Simon Coombs is a psychotherapist, behavioural coach and founder of Working Minds, and specialises in mental health support for the unemployed. He tells me we’re not always great at noticing the state of our wellbeing. In fact, even when we find ourselves in a crisis of some kind, we’re often reluctant to acknowledge the gravity of the situation in terms of our mental health. 
"Whether we talk about mortality or being made redundant, we’re ultimately talking about loss. So we have to consider the grief cycle," he says. "It’s all about denial and anger and bargaining and acceptance. It’s normally what happens when someone passes away but it’s equally as relevant when someone loses a job. Depression can set in, we feel anxious. We can have deteriorating confidence and self-esteem."
"Often, though, people don’t see the deterioration in how they’re feeling," he cautions. "The people around us might start to notice a different person while we stay unaware of the change in ourselves."
This is often coupled, Simon adds, with a withdrawal from relationships. While it’s a helpful tactic sometimes to take time out to tend to our emotional wellbeing, this can easily spiral. And regardless of feeling like we’d rather stick pins in our eyes than reply to that backlog of messages we’ve been ignoring, we may be cheating ourselves of valuable interactions and support. 
"We need to remind ourselves of things we’re good at," says Simon. "And that includes being a good friend. Because losing a job is not just about the loss of income and self-esteem – it’s loss of status. A person can feel absolutely rudderless, like they’re floating around without an anchor. It’s a horrible feeling. So good, strong friendships are more important than ever before."
It’s always worth remembering, though, that friendships are complex. The closer you are, the more intricate the web of the relationship and the more expectations and contexts you’re bringing to the table. They’re also cyclical by nature, passing through periods of distance and closeness. So if you do feel as though there have been casualties, know that those bridges are far from burned. 
By the same token, lots of us will find that our connections and bonds are made even stronger in times of loss. Especially now, when there’s a real sense of solidarity in the air. Losing my job has certainly seen me reconnect with people I’ve been distant from, and has also demonstrated how ready my friends are to recognise my needs and step up – even when I think I’m fine. 
Although this may be a time to step away briefly and reflect, it’s also a time to allow our friends to support us and remind us of our worth – in the real world as well as the professional one.  

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