The Big Question: Are we taking too much time off over Christmas and the new year?

Why are we asking this now?

Because over the Christmas and New Year period, three million workers in the UK are taking two full weeks off. Today is theoretically back-to-work day, but in reality many people won't report for duty again until next week. Not for the first time it has made some feel that the holiday season has been dragging on too long this year, while the economy has taken a hit. Business leaders have complained of a "virtual close-down" of their operations. Businesses have had to struggle through with a skeleton staff or close completely. And according to official figures, more British workers are realising there is more to life than slaving away at the office.

How much has it cost the economy?

With an increasing number of people taking longer off, it is no surprise that there will be a record cost to the economy of as much as £21bn. Bank holidays alone cost the economy £6bn each. While bigger businesses may have the resources to cope with the temporary disappearance of their staff, smaller businesses are the hardest hit by the extended time off. Stephen Alambritis, spokesman for the Federation of Small Businesses, said that there had been a "virtual close down" for his members since as long ago as 21 December.

"This year, more of our members than ever have decided to close altogether between Christmas and New Year," he said. "But employers close down for different reasons. Some close voluntarily, either to reward staff or because none of their partners and suppliers will be working during the period. We hope that when workers return today, they will help employers to hit the ground running in a year that looks set to be a difficult one."

Why have workers taken more time off?

Partly because of the way in which the calendar has fallen, and partly because of a change in the law. The UK has eight public holidays and three of those are crammed into a week. On top of that, Christmas Eve fell on a Monday this year, leading many employers to give their staff an extra day off rather than damaging morale by dragging workers into the office on the Monday before Christmas. That gave workers an extra incentive to take off two full weeks over the festive period without using up such a large chunk of their holiday entitlement. With so many people having a bonus day of holiday, the country will be a further £3bn out of pocket compared to last year.

Since October, public holidays can no longer be included as part of a worker's minimum annual leave allowance, in effect giving workers an extra four days off. The Employment Relations minister, Pat McFadden, said the changes were designed to bring some "extra Christmas cheer to millions of people who have worked hard all year and deserve a break". They seem to have taken him at his word.

There is also a structural shift that may help explain the longer breaks. The UK's economy is now dominated by the service sector, in which workers are reliant on phoning colleagues and emailing clients. If clients and colleagues are away, there is simply less that can be done between Christmas and New Year.

What happens in other countries?

Taking time off at Christmas may be popular in the US, but its 10 public holidays are spread more evenly through the year, and Boxing Day is not among them. Workers in the US also tend to take less holiday leave, with one business survey suggesting that they take off an average of just two weeks each year.

Our European neighbours have not traditionally shared the British obsession with the lengthy Christmas break. In France, public holidays are also shared more evenly around the calendar, rather than being concentrated at Christmas and Easter. Christmas Eve, Boxing Day and New Year's Eve are all normal working days in theory for the French, who tend to take their main holidays in February and August.

But as the level of traffic heading out of Paris during December indicated, the French have shown signs recently of locking up and shipping out for the Christmas period, too. That change has come about as the result of the introduction of the popular 35-hour week, brought in by the last Socialist government. French workers earn extra days off by working over the 35-hour mark, meaning more are using those extra days at Christmas and New Year.

As for giving employees an extra day off before a public holiday, that is common practice in some countries. In Spain, workers are handed an extra holiday on "bridge" days, which connect public holidays with weekends.

So are we lazy then?

It may be true that the British like to enjoy themselves at this time of the year with a lengthy holiday, but they have earned it. The British work among the longest hours in Europe. We spend an average of 40.7 hours a week at work, over three hours more than our French counterparts. Working hours are on the rise again in the UK after a decade of modest decline, according to figures from the TUC.

And though this season's break might have felt like the longest ever, there were still millions of people working between Christmas and New Year - according to a Post Office survey, as many as four out of 10 workers. Call centre workers, retail assistants and hospitality staff are among those called back to the workplace for the busy period.

Are workers really taking more holiday?

It depends who you ask. Government figures do indicate that more of us are using up all of our holiday entitlement. The Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform says that only a quarter of workers are now failing to take up all of their holiday allowance. A recent survey of workers told a different story, though. A Post Office study found that 37 per cent of the workers they asked had not used up their full holiday allowance in 2007. That adds up to around 1.3bn lost days off.

And many should be thinking about taking a longer break at Christmas, rather than a shorter one. Research by YouGov found that 1.8 million workers said they only used half of their annual leave, while 241,000 said they hadn't taken a single day off in the past year. Employers may argue that longer Christmas breaks are bringing businesses to a halt, but one estimate suggests they benefit to the tune of £13.9bn from the failure of British workers to use up their full holiday allowance.

Will more people take a longer break?

Working legislation allows employers to have some control over when their workers take their holiday, so the smart ones may start being stricter about holiday requests to halt the mass exodus from the office.

As for employees, they will have even more of a chance to take a longer break in the future. Full-time workers will receive an extra four days of minimum annual leave in April 2009. But taking an extended Christmas break does have immediate consequences - catching up with two weeks of emails.

Should workers be stopped from taking two weeks off at Christmas?

Yes...

* This year's extended holiday period will cost the economy a record £21bn

* Businesses will be finding it difficult enough in 2008 without a two-week pause in their affairs

* Some people are forced to take a longer break at Christmas because so many of their colleagues, suppliers and clients are away

No...

* Many workers do not use up all of their holiday allowance, so employers should not complain about the Christmas break

* Employers already have some control over when their employees can take a holiday. What is needed is better management

* The British work among the longest hours in Europe - they deserve a long break

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