Managing staff holidays over Christmas

My staff have worked really hard this year. How do I balance the needs of the business with giving them the opportunity to take a well earned break?

As Christmas approaches, millions of employees across the UK will be looking forward to a break from their workplaces, particularly on Christmas Day.

But what about those businesses which have to keep their doors open over the festive period? Can they insist that employees work on Christmas Day; probably the most widely celebrated Christian holiday of the year?


The starting point for any employer considering these questions should be the contract of employment. If it is an express term of an employee’s contract that they may be required to work Christmas Day (or any other public/religious holidays) due to the business needs, then a refusal to do so will potentially constitute a breach of contract.

It will not necessarily matter that those who hold certain religious beliefs will be disadvantaged by this policy, providing there is a genuine business requirement and the policy is a proportionate means of fulfilling that requirement.

The best approach is to keep matters simple. –It is important to demonstrate that you have considered a request for time off.  However, if you can clearly show that you need employees to work on Christmas Day, then detailed investigation into why employees want time off will only complicate matters unnecessarily.

A good example is hospital staff. There is a requirement for hospitals to have their patients cared for 24 hours per day, 365 day of the year. Therefore, requiring staff such as nurses and doctors to work on Christmas Day would be a proportionate means of fulfilling that requirement.

Compulsory leave

Conversely, what about employees who don’t celebrate Christmas? Can they be forced to take time off?

Again, the starting point should be the contract of employment. If employees are given public holidays as paid leave in addition to their annual leave entitlement then they are unlikely to protest. Christmas Day will be given as a days’ paid leave which few are likely push back against regardless of their religious beliefs.

However, there is no legal right for time off on public holidays and many employers require these days to be taken out of employees’ annual leave entitlement. Understandably, those who don’t celebrate Christmas may not want to use their valued holidays to take time off at this time of year.

In cases where there is no contractual provision for employees to take holidays when the business is closed then ample notice must be given if leave is to be enforced

The required notice for a period of compulsory annual leave is calculated on a ratio of 2:1, so the notice given should be twice the length of the required leave.

For example, a business which requires its employees to take two days’ leave (say Christmas Day and Boxing Day) must give four days’ notice. Importantly, this must be given in writing.

Of course, care must be taken to ensure that employees have sufficient annual leave left to take during periods when the business is to be closed. By law, an employee cannot be forced to take unpaid leave. Therefore, an employee who has exhausted their paid leave entitlement may have to be given additional paid leave. This sticky situation in December can be prevented by well drafted contracts of employment which details days of compulsory leave well in advance.


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