UK Markets closed
  • FTSE 100

    6,550.23
    +59.96 (+0.92%)
     
  • FTSE 250

    20,182.69
    +50.25 (+0.25%)
     
  • AIM

    1,068.88
    +2.67 (+0.25%)
     
  • GBP/EUR

    1.1095
    +0.0022 (+0.20%)
     
  • GBP/USD

    1.3475
    +0.0023 (+0.1684%)
     
  • BTC-GBP

    14,142.37
    -173.41 (-1.21%)
     
  • CMC Crypto 200

    373.63
    -5.61 (-1.48%)
     
  • S&P 500

    3,689.07
    +22.35 (+0.61%)
     
  • DOW

    30,144.74
    +175.22 (+0.58%)
     
  • CRUDE OIL

    46.35
    +0.71 (+1.56%)
     
  • GOLD FUTURES

    1,839.10
    -2.00 (-0.11%)
     
  • NIKKEI 225

    26,751.24
    -58.13 (-0.22%)
     
  • HANG SENG

    26,835.92
    +107.42 (+0.40%)
     
  • DAX

    13,298.96
    +46.10 (+0.35%)
     
  • CAC 40

    5,609.15
    +34.79 (+0.62%)
     

Coronavirus: Furlough exclusion pushes new hires 'to brink of suicide'

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·13-min read
Gareth Clement and his wife Georgia. Photo: Gareth Clement
Gareth Clement and his wife Georgia. Photo: Gareth Clement

Few people find watching speeches by Britain’s chancellor Rishi Sunak harder than Gareth Clement.

Two months ago the 31-year-old came close to taking his own life. It was the same day another Sunak speech came and went without any measures aimed at people like him.

He has had no income since not only losing a “perfect” new sales job in March, but also starting too late to qualify for furlough support.

“If my son hadn’t been in the bedroom opposite and my wife lying next to me, I wouldn’t be here now,” said Clement, from Merthyr Tydfil in south Wales. “I’ve never felt so low and worthless.”

He is one of many people suffering hardship because they are excluded from government crisis support schemes. Campaigners including MPs claim up to 3 million people have been left out for “arbitrary” reasons, from the newly hired and newly self-employed to freelancers paid mainly via pay-as-you-earn (PAYE).

Clement said being left out again in Sunak’s latest statement feels like “another kick in the teeth, another realisation we’ve been forgotten.”

Sunak was forced to confront the issue in a TV interview on Thursday (9 July). “How many people will end up killing themselves because of this?” asked one excluded freelance curtain-maker in a clip played to the chancellor. Sunak apologised for not being “able” to help everyone.

READ MORE: Rishi Sunak unveils new £30bn ‘plan for jobs’

The anger and financial troubles of excluded workers and others hit hard by the crisis have been widely documented.

The mental health impact of the economic downturn, exclusion from support and false hope of being furloughed has received less attention. But signs are growing all are taking a heavy toll.

Yahoo Finance UK has seen figures showing surging calls to a suicide helpline, and spoken to excluded workers grappling with anxiety, depression and the “emotional rollercoaster” of repeatedly dashed expectations of being furloughed.

Spike in demand for suicide prevention helpline

Simon Gunning, chief executive of the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), a suicide prevention charity, said every mental health helpline had seen “massively increased demand” during the pandemic.

Calls to CALM’s own helpline are up more than 30% on pre-crisis levels. Phone and webchat teams have responded to more than 38,000 requests for help since lockdown began, according to data shared exclusively with Yahoo Finance UK.

Gunning said his team had directly prevented at least 167 suicides, but calls are also up from people less close to the brink.

Many callers to CALM are worried about the virus, including frontline workers. But every day callers also highlight troubles more linked to work and the economic downturn.

“There are concerns about employment, paying rent or mortgages, and the long-term fallout,” added Gunning. He stressed suicide was never inevitable, but noted rates increased after the global financial crisis.

ONS
ONS

Separate research suggests anxiety levels have risen sharply, while the number of people reporting mental health problems “much more than usual” has doubled to a quarter of all over-16s.

Survey data provides further evidence this deteriorating mental health partly reflects economic troubles, rather than the health and social effects of the virus and lockdown alone. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has found greater anxiety among people with work or incomes hit by COVID-19, and particularly high anxiety levels among those borrowing to get by.

Official figures on suicides during the pandemic, based on coroners’ findings, are only likely to be published late next year.

From new job to no job

Evidence suggests many workers who happened to start and then lose new jobs just before lockdown hit have had a uniquely distressing experience during the pandemic.

A self-selecting survey by New Starter Justice (NSJ), a campaign group lobbying against new hires’ exclusion from furlough, found 82.7% of newly hired respondents said their current situation had significantly affected their mental health. Clement is not the only one to have warned on social media of being “pushed to the very brink of ending it all.”

Official figures show around 600,000 workers start new jobs every month. For many March new starters, their traumatic experiences began when they faced not only lost work as firms axed staff, but also the abrupt loss of the hope, purpose and excitement that can come with a new start.

Zoë Basted in her garden. Photo: Zoë Basted
Zoë Basted in her garden. Photo: Zoë Basted

Zoë Basted, 25, from Norwich, had become a pub’s first pastry chef, with free rein to reinvent its dessert menu. “It was the first time somewhere wanted me for me, the first place I’d had a sense of freedom.”

But many new hires found themselves no longer needed almost immediately. Basted was due to launch her menu the week the public were first urged to avoid pubs. She watched bookings plummet from 150 to zero, had to throw away all the new desserts she’d prepared and was told to go home on unpaid leave.

For Clement, whose new job in a phone shop lasted just 10 days, “it went from really good to utter desperation in two weeks, from hero to zero.”

Ben Wilson, 24, from Crawley, was unfortunate enough to start a new job on 23 March, the same day Britain went into lockdown. He began work at a medical research company on the Monday, after a long spell of job-hunting that had left the Masters graduate suffering depression.

The office shut on Tuesday, and by Friday Wilson was unemployed again. “Unsurprisingly the depression came back,” he said.

‘Last in, first out’ is a common pattern for lay-offs, and the NSJ survey suggests new young workers in hospitality and retail took the heaviest hit. Their sectors were among the worst affected by lockdown, and typically have high turnover.

A survey asked new starters about their industries. (New Starter Justice)
A survey asked new starters about their industries. (New Starter Justice)

‘Emotional rollercoaster’ of dashed expectations

But securing and then losing new jobs marked only the beginning of a troubling pattern for such workers, who have had their hopes raised and dashed again and again.

The chancellor promised this week “no one will be left without hope,” but many new starters’ dejection instead reflects being given too much hope that proved false.

Several told Yahoo Finance UK of a string of ups and downs around repeatedly frustrated expectations of being furloughed, which would have handed them a financial lifeline. The scheme has safeguarded millions of workers’ jobs on paid leave, with 80% of wages covered by government.

“There’s been a few glimmers of being furloughed which were then wiped out, like a carpet being taken out beneath me,” said Basted.

The first came when the scheme was announced on 20 March. Nothing in the Treasury’s press release or chancellor’s statement suggested it might not help newly hired staff.

Some employers duly told staff they would be furloughed. Only around a week later did it become clear workers had to be employed before 28 February to qualify, excluding March new hires.

READ MORE: Furlough deadline extension gives new starters ‘false hope’

Many new starters were left ruing only lost jobs but a sense of “arbitrary” exclusion from help, as Labour immediately warned.

“Lockdown struck and we were placed on furlough, or so we thought. Then they found out I was ineligible,” said Clement. “That income was taken away through no fault of my own on the basis of a cut-off date.”

A second false dawn came in mid-April, when the Treasury announced a cut-off date extension to 19 March. A minister apologised it had taken so long, but it appeared a victory for thousands of new starters demanding reform.

“I thought it was brilliant,” said Basted, who immediately passed the news onto her employer. One sales worker in south-west England told Yahoo Finance UK they even received a call from their manager. “They said ‘you’re going to be added [to the scheme], sorry about the stress.’ I thought ‘thank God.’”

But it eventually became clear the changes did nothing for many jobless March hires, something not clear in most news reports. The detail of the Treasury statement confirmed workers needed to be not only employed, but also have had their pay processed by HMRC by 19 March. Many employers process pay only at the end of the month.

Basted’s accountant phoned to apologise her details were submitted on 21st. “It was absolutely soul-destroying.”

Wilson similarly fell foul of the date by a few days. “I had that upswing of hope and back down as it was crushed,” he said.

Some now felt not just left out but deeply cynical. “It felt more like a PR exercise than actually trying to help. It almost felt like they were deliberately putting hope out there to make us go away or be quiet,” added Wilson.

For others it compounded the sense they had been forgotten. “People think everyone’s been added and having a lovely time,” said one.

The rationale for the Treasury’s conditions is fear of fraud through bogus payroll submissions after the scheme’s announcement. But this even left some feeling smeared. “I was brought to tears, I’ve never been classed as anything like that. To know I meant so little was horrible,” said Basted.

READ MORE: UK income schemes leave some workers ‘with nothing’

Yet more dashed expectations came whenever major changes to the scheme have been announced since.

The inclusion of staff at firms under new ownership in April, the scheme’s extension by three months in May, the inclusion of parents in June — all sparked fresh anticipation new hires may come next. Campaigners’ success raising awareness also boosted hopes.

But the announcement never came. Ministers instead held out the prospect of support through furlough by former employers or universal credit.

Basted asked her former employer, but two days later it collapsed. She applied for universal credit, but weeks later was told her partner’s income made her ineligible, despite him earning only £1,875 ($2,359) a month. “It was false hope, I didn’t get a penny. It shot me in the gut.”

Talk of this “emotional rollercoaster” is common among new hires, according to NSJ co-founder Zoë Badder. “It’s a massive thing. Every time you get knocked down, it’s difficult to get back up again.”

It is so common one excluded former restaurant manager, Andy Templar, even drew a rollercoaster ride, illustrating some of the highs and lows.

andy templar design and illustration
Some of the highs and lows of new hires on an 'emotional rollercoaster.' Photo: Andy Templar Design and Illustration

‘A black pit of depression’

Excluded new hires told Yahoo Finance UK job loss, exclusion and financial worries had taken a heavy toll on their mental health.

For some despair deepened as months passed, with both calls for change and job-hunting proving fruitless.

Basted said being excluded was still “all I’m thinking about,” on top of mounting debts and looming bills that often cause sleepless nights.

For Wilson, the ups and downs deepened the despair of losing a job within a week of starting after months of unemployment. “The first month was a black pit of depression. I had days where i just laid in bed thinking ‘what’s the point going on any more.”

Badder describes feeling similarly despondent. “It’s not knowing what to do with yourself, but having no interest in anything.”

Another new hire once had suicidal thoughts. “I was just so low, I didn’t feel there was a way out. I wouldn’t get out of bed for days and days. I was drinking a lot.”

Zoë Badder, a co-founder of the New Starter Justice campaign. Photo: Zoë Badder
Zoë Badder, a co-founder of the New Starter Justice campaign. Photo: Zoë Badder

Some said the worst part was not being able to contribute to household finances, after being financially self-reliant since their teens.

“I feel worthless as I can’t pay. I’m 25 and I can’t even buy milk. I have to ask my partner for some money, and we had to start rationing what we were eating. No-one should ever feel like this,” said Basted, who has not heard back from more than 90 job applications.

“I felt I let down my son and wife, I thought my wife would be better off without me,” said Clement of his lowest moments. At one point he had to choose buying dinner over a Paw Patrol magazine his son wanted in a shop. “That kicked me in the nuts.”

Family, solidarity and everyday relief

Everyone interviewed by Yahoo Finance UK described how invaluable the support was they had received from family, partners, and other new starters.

“The best thing I did was speak to my wife,” said Clement. “She’s been a rock, she dragged me out of that hole.”

“I haven’t got to point of having suicidal thoughts. Thankfully I’ve had support,” said Basted, praising her fiance.

Several described social media networks of excluded workers as a crucial lifeline, both in feeling less alone and direct mutual support. For Badder helping coordinate NSJ’s campaign has become much of her life. “Without this I don’t know where I’d have been. I’ve made friends for life.”

Wilson found similar purpose in volunteering for the NHS, spending over 1,400 hours calling isolated people. “It feels good helping. I know how bad depression can be.”

Some have found relief in new everyday routines. Clement tries to “take it day by day,” taking joy in walks or football with his son. Basted has thrown herself into gardening, growing 50 different fruit and vegetables at home. “I’ve been busy, it takes my mind off things.”

Several also still hoped to return to their jobs, even if employers could not offer certainty. Wilson recently restarted his new role, while Badder’s former employer agreed to furlough her.

Clement said he had been “helped massively” by loan payment holidays, one of many government-led support initiatives.

A government spokesperson highlighted the millions of jobs that have been protected via “generous” income support scheme and business loans, grants, and tax deferrals. “Our wide-ranging support package is one of the most comprehensive in the world.”

He said the government was commited to supporting the vulnerable “throughout the outbreak and beyond,” with £4.2m for mental health charities and £200m of crisis support grants for charities.

Gunning said Britain still had to “work harder” on suicide prevention than the last economic crisis. He highlighted CALM advice to stay connected to friends, keep routines, and above all “talk about what’s happening between the ears.”

But he believes increased calls to helplines partly show people do feel more able to ask for help than in the past. “I’m hoping that means we’ve seen a change in society.”

NHS advice on mental health is available online. If you are struggling to cope, you can receive confidential support from Samaritans on 116 123 (24/7) or jo@samaritans.org, CALM on 0800 58 58 58 or via webchat (5-12pm), and other charities. Information on mental health services is available from the NHS and from Mind on 0300 123 3393 or info@mind.org.uk.