Industry professionals who were put on furlough have spoken of the “unbearable” unknown of the uncertainty they faced at the start of the pandemic.

A sudden adjustment to being furloughed was on of the key concerns noted by panellists speaking as part of Travel Weekly’s Mental Health Matters Virtual Brunch.

Natalie Holder, trade partnership manager at expedition cruise line Hurtigruten, said she was “absolutely devastated”, when the pandemic hit and she went from settling into her new job, having joined in November 2019, to being placed on furlough.

“I felt really alone,” said Holder, who lives by herself and explained how her worries about the security of her job left her unsure how she would pay for her mortgage.

“It was that unknown of what the future was going to be that was really just unbearable,” she said, adding: “My anxiety really took over at this point.

“I didn’t know what furlough was. And then I felt guilty that I was taking money for not actually working.”

During her few months on furlough, Holder said it was important to her to find a daily routine and achieve certain tasks no matter how small, such as making the bed.

“They brought me back from furlough because they recognised that I was by myself,” she said. “That meant I had my career back. It was an emotional roller coaster over those first two months.”

Holder said that, as hard as the past year has been, the situation has brought a lot of people together. “We’ve all experienced something that has made us uncomfortable, anxious, it’s taken a toll on all of us in some way or another,” she said.

Sandra Corkin, managing director of Northern Irish travel agency Oasis Travel, had to furlough the majority of her employees at the start of the crisis and is now in the process of welcoming staff back to work gradually.

“People really wanted to get back,” she said. “And those who aren’t in our ‘phase one’, a lot of them felt disappointed, and that was a bit emotional.”

Corkin noted that many of her employees were fed up with not working. She said: “That’s been a bit of a challenge, but it’s [important the agency is] reassuring everybody that it just is a phased approach and the only reason that it’s like that is purely down to money and affordability.”

Emma Kayne, director of Kayne Travel, is still utilising the flexi-furlough scheme and has opened her store for a few hours a day to maintain face-to-face contact with customers.

“I am a little bit fearful, if I’m honest,” she said. “I do think it’s going to be a stop, start, stop, start, [but] maybe not as much as before, because obviously we have the vaccinations now.”

The Mental Health Matters Virtual Brunch also saw a second panel discuss the mental health considerations that have been put in place in travel businesses. The government’s mental health ambassador, Dr Alex George, also spoke at the event.

This is the latest instalment in Travel Weekly’s Mental Health Matters initiative, which offers resources, coverage and information.

Help and support

If you, or someone you know, is affected by mental health problems, and you need further support or advice, contact the Samaritans free of charge on 116 123.

The Mental Health Foundation has portfolio of resources on how to look after your mental health during the coronavirus crisis.

Abta LifeLine offers services including counselling and support.