Work woes in winter: annual leave and homeworking

Winter can be a hectic time of year, with stress levels heightened by frantic planning for the festive season and employers may be overwhelmed by annual leave requests. How can employers keep employees happy while balancing the needs of the workplace?

Annual leave requests

Most employees are likely to request time off during the winter months to spend time with family and friends, especially where this aligns with school holiday periods, religious festivals and national bank holidays. Employers may be reluctant to refuse employees time off and avoid being seen as a ‘Scrooge’. However, employers should not feel obliged to accept every request, particularly where it would not be operationally feasible to do so.

So how do employers determine which requests to accept and which ones to decline? Some employers may institute a ‘first come, first served’ system, or alternatively operate an annual rota system so that colleagues can take it in turns to have the desired time off. Both systems have benefits as well as drawbacks. 

A first come first served system will benefit those who have been there longest and who are familiar with the requirement. Those who join part-way through a year will lose out if holiday requests have already been submitted. It could also disadvantage those who have been on long-term leave such as sickness or family leave. This could inadvertently create a discriminatory policy if absence is due to disability related absence or maternity leave and the affected employees are disadvantaged due to their absence from the business at the time when holiday requests are being made. Similar problems may also arise from employees who are observant Christians who feel very strongly about needing time off for Christmas because of their religious practices and who have possibly missed out on getting the requested time off simply because they weren’t quick enough to do so.  

A rota could solve some of these problems to demonstrate fairness for everyone, but a rota will not work in industries where there is high staff turnover and employees do not remain long enough to see multiple festive seasons. In addition, workers on fixed-term contracts or seasonal workers will lose out if they are only contracted for a short period of time or have been recruited specifically to work that period. 

Employers will need to balance these issues to see what works best for their business against the needs and demands of their employees.

Bank holidays

There are three bank holiday days in December and January (four in Scotland). Bank holidays may already be a non-working day for many if this forms part of the employee’s holiday entitlement. This is unlikely to be the case for businesses such as those in the retail or hospitality industries or for those working in healthcare and emergency services.

Time off for bank holidays is not an automatic entitlement. To determine an employee’s entitlement to bank holidays, employers should look to their employment contracts. It should be stated whether holiday entitlement includes bank holidays or whether these are considered working days. 

Considering homeworking 

Over the last couple of years, more and more employees have been working from home either completely or as part of a hybrid arrangement. Offering flexible working options over the winter months may help to keep employees happy if working from home will help them to manage their childcare or other needs (so long as they are also still able to do their job from home). 

Whilst working in the office may be preferable for many employers, there are benefits to allowing employees to work from home from time to time. Improving an employee’s working life balance could lead to increased productivity and motivation as well as them feeling trusted by their employers. 

All employees with more than 26 weeks’ service are entitled to make a statutory flexible working request. However, employers can decide to make more informal arrangements with their employees on an ad-hoc basis even if just for this time of year. 

If employers already have a homeworking policy in place, then this may provide guidance on how to deal with informal requests to work from home. Otherwise, it may be a good time to consider implementing a homeworking policy to address these very issues.

In any case, when considering requests to work from home, employers will need to properly consider the reasons behind the request to avoid potential discrimination. For example, if an employee has a disability, they might have health related reasons to need to work from home at any time. For someone who struggles with mobility, it might be easier not to have to travel into the office in winter conditions. This could be a reasonable adjustment that an employer would be obliged to make for that employee so refusing the request could lead to litigation.  

Additionally, some employees may need to work from home because of care needs (whether children or otherwise) and employers should not be too quick to reject their requests to work from home or work flexibly. It is widely accepted by tribunals that women are generally more likely to have caring obligations than men. Any blanket decisions or policies to reject requests to work from home would be more likely therefore to disadvantage women rather than men and this can lead to claims for indirect sex discrimination. Any such claim would need to be objectively justified by the business in order to defend it and that can be difficult in cases where the role can successfully be carried out from home. 

Balancing the wellbeing of employees against the needs of the business can be a challenge at any time, but more so, at what is for many, the most frantic time of year. If you have questions about flexible working or managing holiday requests, please do get in touch.

Disclaimer

This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.

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