Ho, ho, ho, it’s off to work we don’t go

Pilita Clark: Workers find it hard to concentrate on the job as Christmas looms

If you are reading this after December 18th in the UK or Ireland and you are at your desk, powering through a pile of work, congratulations. You are probably in a minority.

The start of the week before Christmas is traditionally when most workers have mentally clocked off. Up to 57 per cent of British workers admitted they had checked out by this date, according to research the Peakon HR analytics group carried out before the pandemic.

Some were shopping online. Others were planning Christmas Day or a holiday break. More than 10 per cent were taking longer lunches and nearly 20 per cent were leaving work earlier than usual.

This was by no means a UK-only phenomenon. In the US, most employees expected to lose focus at work by December 16th while UK workers lasted until December 18th and Germans followed a day or so later.


As it happens, younger workers were more likely to click off earlier than older ones. In the UK, more than a third of workers aged 18-34 expected festive distractions would have cut their productivity by December 12th. By December 15th that figure rose to nearly half, according to Peakon, which was acquired last year by the Workday HR software group.

Does any of this matter? For an industry such as retail that depends heavily on Christmas business, then yes, it obviously matters.

But it is a different story for companies in sectors that typically slow down towards the end of the year, some of which have not merely accepted the inevitability of the Christmas clock-off but turned it into a staff incentive.

The UK’s Jargon PR agency has offered its staff a bonus Christmas shopping day for the past 10 years and Kevin Winfield, an associate director at the firm, says the perk makes even more sense this year.

“For many of our clients, their industries tend to slow down at this time of year and, especially since the pandemic, many businesses have embraced the need to shut down over the festive period to give their teams time off,” he says.

It is not entirely clear what has happened since the pandemic. Workday says it did not follow up with more of the research Peakon had done on the Christmas checkout.

But there is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that, despite a cost-of-living crisis and the lingering Covid threat, this year’s festive period has been even more distracting than others.

In the UK, social media has filled with images of big queues outside everything from Christmas markets to student pub parties as people throng to events free of Covid restrictions.

In Japan, authorities are reportedly braced for a rise in the death toll of partygoers hit by cars after sleeping where they drop on the road, as office workers gather for end of year celebrations that many avoided during the pandemic.

Elsewhere, a lot of people have also been heading off to their first office Christmas party since 2019, with not always ideal results.

More trouble has occurred in Australia, where a TV host revealed last week he had checked himself into a facility to get help for alcohol problems after upsetting female colleagues at a gathering after an office Christmas party on Saturday night.

“I am beyond gutted and devastated to know I have upset my colleagues after our Christmas party,” said Chris Smith, who was suspended from both a Sky News Australia TV show and a fill-in stint on the 2GB radio station after the unhappy Saturday in question. The women did “not deserve such drunken treatment”, he added.

The consequences of this particular Christmas event have obviously been notable, but I would be shocked if Smith were the only person whose December merrymaking ended badly this year.

Ultimately though, he is in a minority. Whether you have checked out early or kept working as busily as ever, this December is the closest many of us have come to the resumption of normal life in three years. And that is something to celebrate, even if it takes a while to get used to it again. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022