We live in an ever more diverse and multicultural community, where true equality requires that all races and religions must be treated the same. In the working world, this means that employees of all faiths deserve the right to take time off work to celebrate and mark religious festivals.
However, annual leave and time off of work in the UK is still anglocentric – or rather, it revolves around the ‘traditional’ Christian calendar.
While annual leave allowances and working patterns vary, many employees – particularly in office environments – can expect some time off over Christmas and Easter, thanks to the UK’s bank holiday (or public holiday) calendar. Some companies and organisations may extend their generosity and offer extra closure days over this period, and some may simply offer a standard couple of days; but it’s usually a time when millions of people enjoy some valuable time off to spend with friends and family, regardless of religious belief.
But is this truly equal?
Religious holidays and the law
Religion/belief is a protected characteristic, covered by the Equality Act 2010. This means that it’s illegal to discriminate against, harass, or victimise an employee or colleague based on their faith or religion – just as it would be for their sexual orientation, gender or age.
Before the Equality Act 2010, The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 ensured that nobody should be discriminated against at work because of their beliefs. A Guardian article published the day the regulations came into force explains: “what the regulations are saying, in effect, is that all deeply held beliefs need to be taken seriously and, wherever possible, work should not prevent people from practising what they believe in.”
It’s not a legal requirement for employers to grant holiday leave for religious holidays; so while Christian holidays often benefit from bank holiday status, this is not the same for other festivals such as Eid or Passover. This seems like the opposite of equal.
Could this be grounds for a change in the UK’s approach to Bank Holidays?
The UK and Christianity
Traditionally, the UK is a Christian nation, with a long history; but how do the public feel about it; is this still considered the case?
In 2020, a poll run by YouGov revealed that many Britons still believe that the UK is a Christian country: “The majority of Britons (56%) say the UK is a Christian country. This view is held by seven in ten (69%) British Christians, as well as half of non-Christians (47%) and of those who are not religious (49%)”. This changes with age: older Britons are more likely to believe that the UK is still Christian.
The same YouGov survey revealed that “whilst Britons may differ on whether and how they celebrate Christmas and Easter, there is a universal agreement that both should be public holidays. The support is equally high both by those who are and are not religious. Among those who are not Christian, eight in ten (80%) support Christmas Day and over seven in ten (74%) support Good Friday/Easter Sunday as public holidays”
While the support for the UK being a Christian country only wins by a margin (a mere 6% – and only from British participants) there is clear support here for the continued allocation of public holidays around the Christian calendar.
Realistically, it seems unlikely that bank holidays will change to accommodate multiple faiths any time soon – so what can companies do to ensure their entire team is supported with their religious beliefs?
Creating an equal working environment for all faiths
Organisations must understand and support their employees, whatever their faith or religious beliefs.
We’ve already mentioned that employees’ annual leave isn’t always required to be taken over UK public holidays, but it is required at other times, including significant dates in any other religious calendar. If Christian employees benefit from extra time off on top of their annual leave allowance to celebrate their religion, shouldn’t all other faiths have the same experience?
It’s not as simple as offering employees ‘extra’ leave to be used for religious celebration. Providing extra holiday for faith reasons may directly discriminate, in turn, against other employees. What might seem like a quick fix for equality ends up doing just the opposite.
If a company requires employees to use up their annual leave allowance for bank holidays, this can also be problematic. If an employee who does not practice Christianity is required to take annual leave on Easter Monday because the company is closed, for example, this leaves them with one less day of leave to use for their faith through no choice of their own, putting them at a disadvantage.
This seems like a complex problem, but it can be solved with an approach that embraces true equality and understanding.
It’s down to employers to create an open and supportive working environment that encourages employees of any faith to feel able to use their leave for whatever purpose they wish.
Welcoming all faiths and beliefs
One way to ensure that your organisation is truly inclusive is to integrate all religious holidays and festivals into the organisation’s calendar, to make sure everyone working for the company understands the needs of their colleagues and employees and is aware of specific dates when teammates may need to use annual leave.
Often, businesses and organisations have dates in their operational calendar that require specific staff members to be present. What if these clash with a religious holiday?
While organisations cannot, and must not, discriminate against employees who require time off for a religious event or festival, they may still reject applications for annual leave if they have a compelling and valid business reason to do so, and if they have been sympathetic of the request and have given it proper, unbiased consideration.
What does this approach look like in practice?
The 2003 Guardian article mentioned previously offers a great example from Birmingham City Council:
“Each year we send out a schedule of all main religious festivals, events, etc to all chief officers and departmental personnel managers,” says Lucy Phillips, employment equality manager at the council. Employees are entitled to take up to four days of leave (from their annual leave entitlement) to observe a religious holiday. If this conflicts with the council’s needs, Phillips says, they try to make recompense to the individuals concerned. “If an employee, due to operational requirements, is unable to take leave on a specific date, then that working day is treated as a bank holiday and therefore paid at an enhanced rate,” she says.”
It’s the honest and equal conversation, and understanding of mutual needs, that’s so important. While many companies have annual schedules that often mean colleagues are required to work certain dates or times, recognising that this may disadvantage some employees, and rectifying that as best you can, is a positive way forward.
These days, with employers and employees embracing and adapting to varying patterns and needs, there are other ways businesses can accommodate and support their religious employees. Offering the option to work from home, work remotely, or choose flexible hours, for example, could work in favour of equality.
The main thing is that organisations and companies work to accommodate all religious needs. Sometimes that’s not about a full day out of the office; often, it’s about extending lunch hours for prayer times, without any questions asked.