Christmas Eve: should I stay or should I go?

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Many employees will recognise the scenario: it’s Christmas Eve; they have not taken the day off and are sitting at work periodically reaching out from behind their PCs to grasp Quality Street chocolates. They may have a lot of work to finish but it’s quite likely the office is quiet with many colleagues having taken the day off to prepare for the big day.

The question on everybody’s lips is “when can we go?” a question that inevitably brings to mind poor Bob Cratchit from A Christmas Carol. But bosses, themselves either beavering away to meet a deadline or dreaming of a white Christmas, can be too preoccupied to give the all-clear, thus risking falling into Ebenezer Scrooge territory.

At one small, traditional publishing company based in central London last Christmas, the mounting tension over “when can we go home?” was only broken, amid hilarity, when it was found around 3pm that the owner, who occupied his own private office, had already left the building. But as coats were gathered and “which pub?” exchanges reached a crescendo, someone asked “how do we know he’s not coming back?” A speedy risk evaluation was conducted ending with a mass exodus.

But for a huge number of workers in emergency services, at care homes, in shops, pubs, and on military bases, such frivolity is unknown. Christmas Eve for these employees is a normal working day and very little dispensation can be made.

Employers should remember that although Christmas Eve is a normal working day, dismissing an employee over unauthorised leave may not end well for them. In 2012’s Stott v Next Retail Ltd, an employee who was sacked by clothing retailer Next for failing to attend work without permission on Christmas Eve was found to have been unfairly dismissed by an employment tribunal. Mrs Stott had paid £50 to attend her husband’s Christmas work function and had given the store manager three weeks’ notice. She also agreed to work other days over the Christmas period.

The tribunal in the case recognised that Christmas was an extremely busy time for the retailer but decided Mrs Stott had been unfairly dismissed, although a written warning would have been appropriate.

This Christmas, shopworkers union Usdaw has lobbied for stores to close at 4pm on Christmas Eve, “to ensure workers have a decent break”.

For some workers at employers where Christmas Eve is a busy time, the failure to get time off is upsetting, especially among one-parent families. Carolann, on Netmums, writes: “My children are 4 and 2 and this is the first year I won’t be with them on Christmas Eve. I will miss the xmas eve panto as well (our tradition).  I still feel SO guilty though. Tell me I’m not alone?”

Among replies, Katrina D writes: “Nope, ur not alone and it sucks. I’m a nurse in A&E and this year will be my first turn to do Christmas since DS was born – happy to work new year. I’m a single mum to so I will be devastated if we can’t wake up xmas morning in our own home! I’m hoping to work nightshift xmas night and boxing night and stay up in between but everyone has to be fair and I do know this but it doesn’t make it any easier. It’s def worst part of the job.”

Meanwhile, in care homes, for children and for older people, the song Do They Know It’s Christmas comes to mind. Jenni writes on Netmums: “i work in residential child care and from the 15th of dec till the 15th of Jan we are not allowed holidays. Usually we have to just work our own shifts no matter where they fall so some ppl worked both christmas and new year and others got away with working neither.”

So, for employees, the message of this particular Christmas story is that if you can book 24th off, do it. If not, enjoy the chocolates, and try not to fret about an early finish – there are so many people for whom that would be a luxury. And for employers in non-emergency organisations, remember the Cratchits.

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