Can your employer force you to work over Christmas?

Can you refuse to go in over Christmas? Should you call in sick?

Work at Christmas

Sainsbury's staff have been complaining that the supermarket is running a Christmas advert about families taking time off to spend together over Christmas - but insisting their own staff work during the Christmas period. They are not alone. A new study has revealed that three quarters of people don't get a choice about working over Christmas.

The study, by Cotton Traders, asked 2,000 workers and found that half of them will work Christmas Eve, one in five will work Boxing Day and one in eight have to work on Christmas Day itself. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that half of British workers say they can't relax over the festive period because of their work commitments.

See also: New petition calls for shops to be shut on Boxing Day

See also: Will shops be open on Boxing Day?

Your rights

These seem like astonishing figures, but maybe it shouldn't come as such a surprise, because there is no fundamental right to have weekends or bank holidays off. This year Christmas Eve is on Saturday and Christmas Day is a Sunday, so if you normally have to work at the weekends, there's no guarantee you will get either day off.

Likewise the Bank Holidays that shift to 26th and 27th December are not universally protected, so if you normally have to work on Bank Holidays, you may have to work then too.

To find out your rights, you'll need to look at your contract. It may state that paid public holidays are part of your annual leave, or that your normal working days are Mondays to Fridays. If those days are not protected, you will have to follow your workplace procedures to book the time off.

Your contract will also need to state if the right to time off is restricted over the Christmas period. This cannot be something that's simply imposed by a line manager out of the blue. They also have a duty to ensure that any process of deciding who can take time off is scrupulously fair.

What can you do?

If you went into a particular career knowing full well that working over Christmas would sometimes be part of the deal, then it is likely to be something you have come to terms with. Police officers, doctors and nurses tend to be under no illusion that their Christmas is likely to be spent at work - at least once every few years.

If you usually work at Christmas, but for one year there are extenuating circumstances, then most organisations have some leeway. You may need to speak to your line manager or HR and explain your position, but they should be reasonable. If you are a single parent with no childcare options, for example, you're not going to be expected to the leave the kids home alone so you can man the checkout on Boxing Day.

Alternatively, your colleagues may be understanding of your position. One in four British workers have sacrificed their own time off by swapping shifts so colleagues with young families can spend the time with their loved ones over Christmas.

Failing a swap, you could arrange to celebrate a day earlier or later, so you don't miss out on the festivities. It's something that divorced parents have turned into a fine art, so that nobody feels they have missed out.

Alternatively, small children will need no encouragement to get up extra-early to open presents before you go to work, and you may be able to squeeze in a festive meal around your job - even if it's breakfast.

Happy at work?

On the plus side, the survey found that 46% of people felt the workplace was more relaxed around Christmas - so unless you work in retail, it may not be as bad as you think. Some 35% of people said there tended to be treats in the office at this time of year, and 20% said they were paid more for coming in, both of which could ease the pain of being away from your family.

Of course there will be those who are tempted to call in sick - which one in 12 people admitted in the survey. Naturally this isn't recommended. Quite aside from the fact that normal absence procedures apply if you take time off ill over Christmas, there's the risk that your manager knows exactly what you are doing.

It doesn't stop everyone though. The survey found that one in 12 people had called in sick over Christmas, and discovered some shocking lies people had told to get out of work. One said: "I said that the 25th December was the first year of my Grandma's death, when she hadn't actually died." Another admitted, "I told my boss that a family member was emigrating to Australia and that this would be the last Christmas I would be able to spend with them". And another said: ""I told them that my wife's mother was involved in a car accident"

Perhaps an even more impressive answer was: "I broke my nose to get out of work"

Pilfering from the workplace

Pilfering from the workplace