Furloughed Brits got paid not to work—but two-thirds of them worked anyway

Working through the pandemic.
Working through the pandemic.
Image: Reuters/Simon Dawson
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With Covid-19 furlough schemes in the US and UK coming to an end, there’s a lack of clarity on what will happen next to millions of employees whose jobs are on pause. But new research suggests that, far from spending their furlough time gardening, baking, or even seeking new gigs, many people have spent it doing one thing in particular: Their existing job.

Economists at the universities of Oxford, Zurich, and Cambridge looked into the UK furlough program, which supports one-third of the country’s workforce, accounting for more than 9 million jobs, furloughed by mid-June 2020.  Under the scheme, the UK government pays workers up to 80% of their salary for a limited period of time, allowing companies to retain them without paying them—though companies were allowed to top up the government money.

Until July 1st, the plan also specifically prohibited workers from working for their employers when on the scheme. But the researchers, who surveyed over 4,000 people in two waves in April and May 2020, discovered a striking fact: Only 37% of furloughed workers reported doing no work at all for their employers during that time.

In some sectors, the imperative to work definitely came from employers. In the the sector termed “computer and mathematical,”  44% of those surveyed said they had been asked to work despite being furloughed.

But it also seems that many employees chose to work because they wanted to. Two-thirds of all workers said they had done some work despite being on furlough, even though only 20% were actually asked to. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those on higher salaries, those able to work from home, and those with the most flexible contracts were most likely to do some work.

Women were both more likely to be furloughed in the first place than men, and less likely to work while on the scheme. The authors speculated that this was likely because of caring responsibilities, in part because their research showed that mothers were more likely than fathers or non-parents to ask to be furloughed. Certainly, other studies have found that the lion’s share of childcare and other caring tasks has fallen to women during the pandemic.

The average furloughed worker reported putting in 15 hours in the surveyed week, a drop of 44% from pre-furlough normal, but still significant. Whether out of a sense of responsibility or genuine enjoyment, it seems we find it hard to let go of work—even when we’re effectively being paid not to do it.