Should it be optional to take leave on bank holidays?

The UK’s shared holiday dates have not changed since 1978, and some businesses are starting to move away from compulsory bank holiday leave. But how do you know if you should do the same?

Cartoon illustration of two arms putting white paper cards into a voting box

It’s up to an employer to decide whether or not their employees work on bank holidays. But is compulsory leave on shared holidays still valued by most people?

Recently, as part of our Take it or (annual) leave it campaign, we conducted a OnePoll survey of 2,000 people, and asked them about mandatory bank holiday leave if it was part of their employment contract. 28% of respondents said they’d prefer to work on bank holidays and take other days off, and 17% said they didn’t mind either way.

So why is this?

One reason is religion. 14% of the respondents to our bank holiday survey question said that they don’t celebrate Christmas and would prefer to take other religious holidays off instead.

Currently, UK bank holidays support Christian celebrations, which means that anyone from another religion must use their leave allowance to not work on the days that matter to them. Eid, for example, is as important a celebration to Muslims as Christmas is to Christians, but currently your only options are to request leave or to work through it. Which is not exactly inclusive.

One holiday does not suit all

In theory, bank holidays are ‘shared holidays’, where everyone comes together to enjoy time off work. But today’s reality is that we all work in different sectors, so that doesn’t actually happen.

For example, in one household, you might have one person who works in care, another in retail, and another in hospitality, and it’s likely that all of them will be required to work on bank holidays as they’re busy times. And in other households, you might have a split right down the middle, where half have to work and the rest get time off. Bank holidays can’t really be described as shared holidays anymore, because not everyone gets to spend them together.

Bank holidays may also be unpopular with your staff for other reasons:

  • It’s too busy or expensive to travel, so people feel stuck at home with nothing to do
  • They’d rather have days that they can use at other times of the year, like during the summer or around their birthday
  • Many people are non-religious, so working over Easter or Christmas isn’t a big deal.

Make it optional

Making it optional to take leave on bank holidays is a low-cost perk that will mean a lot to some of your employees. Monzo, Spotify, Deloitte and sleep wellness brand eve sleep have all recently made this change to their annual leave policies, and it’s been positively received by staff.

At Monzo, most of the team can opt out of bank holidays and take their allocated holiday whenever they like. Their Customer Operations staff are scheduled to work on the long weekends, but are still able to submit requests to take them as leave. Similarly, eve sleep has a “pick ‘n’ mix bank holiday policy”, which enables their employees to take holiday when it’s most meaningful to them.

On the subject of optional bank holidays, eve sleep’s director of people was quoted as saying that they adapted their leave policy to improve diversity and inclusion. Employees who celebrate other religious holidays no longer have to use their personal allowance to take the time off.

"Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion is something we are continuously evolving at eve and always looking at how to treat people as individuals. Our Pick and Mix bank holiday benefit does exactly that. eve acknowledges we are all different and should be given the choice whether an individual takes a UK bank holiday or swaps for another day. It’s such a simple, low-cost, but powerful benefit, and it seems crazy we hadn’t done it sooner to recognise everyone as an individual."  
- Faye McLean, People Director, at eve sleep

Altering your bank holiday leave policy will require good internal communication and solid HR support, but it may be worth considering for your business. Now more than ever, people are looking for flexibility at work and this is a cost-effective change that could enhance employee experience, boost morale and promote inclusion.

Let us know what you decide to do!


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