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Religious festivals, holy days and observances

In the UK there are a wide range of different religions that both employers and employees may need to have some understanding of and how they may occasionally affect the workplace.

Examples include:

Key points

  • Religious observance will vary with the individual's beliefs and the festival in question 
  • Employers are not legally obliged to grant requests for leave on religious grounds but many festivals/holy days require little or no special workplace action and some flexibility can improve staff morale 
  • Some practices and observances during festivals and holy days may apply to employees whilst they work 
  • Employers and employees who discuss and plan requests in good time are likely to minimise the impact (if any) of such requests 
  • Employers should keep the requirements of their business in mind and balance any special requests against this

Many religions have specific days or periods throughout the year that involve additional religious observances for followers. The nature, duration and requirements vary depending upon the holy day or religious festival, and can also vary depending on the personal religious beliefs of an individual. It is useful for both employees and employers to give thought to any impact this may have in the workplace, as simple and well-planned arrangements can help manage everyone's expectations.

Worship and prayer

Holy days and festivals may mean some employees wish/believe they need to attend additional religious events. While some of these are tied to specific times, others may provide the opportunity to attend a service at different points during the day.

There is no right that guarantees employees time off to attend religious services, but it is good practice for employers to accommodate requests where possible, although this will depend on the overall level of demand for time off and the requirements of the business. It is helpful to establish if an employee desires a full day away or if they simply want a few hours, especially if an employer operates a flexible working system.

Employees remaining in the workplace may also wish for a private space for prayer or meditation. Employers may have prayer rooms for such purposes but if not, designating such a space temporarily at certain times of the day (based on employees' requests) can be of particular help during religious festivals and holy days. An example of this is the additional prayer of Musaf recited on major Jewish holy days.

Fasting and abstinence

Fasting usually involves having limited/no food and/or drink for a specific day or period (e.g. sunrise to sunset). Examples of this include the Hindu festival of Maha Shivaratri and the Islamic festival of Ramadan.

Abstinence usually involves refraining from certain items or practices during a period of time (e.g. not eating meat). An example of this is how some Christians mark Good Friday.

During such periods, it is often sensible for employees to inform their manager of the observance (especially in the case of fasting) as they will then understand why the employee is not eating. Lack of food may affect performance in different ways. Equally, although breaks should be kept, flexibility around their timings may make it easier for an employee to manage their workload if they wish to take time off to carry out additional prayer or worship.

Longer periods of fasting and abstinence can be particularly challenging and tiring for employees. Minimising/spreading out particularly physically/mentally demanding tasks can help. Employers who are able to be more flexible with their employees throughout such a time are likely to receive extra appreciation and effort from their employees.

Increasing awareness

Many workplaces have employees from different religious and non-religious backgrounds. Encouraging greater awareness and understanding of these backgrounds can be rewarding, particularly in terms of team building. It can also help to reduce the chance of misunderstanding resulting in complaints or disciplinary action.

Employers and employees can work together in simple ways to raise such awareness. This may involve providing details of religious holy days and festivals in company newsletters or on staff notice boards, or even inviting staff that are not of the same faith to share in certain events. An example of this would be for staff to share in Iftar - the evening meal that breaks the daily fast during the Islamic observance of Ramadan.

Time off work and business closures

Employees may wish to take time off during holy days and festivals for a number of reasons. Attendance at their place of worship is a common request, but there may also be requests for private prayer and meditation, charity work and for extra rest.

Employers are under no legal obligation to grant a religious-based request for time off. However, it is not only good practice to accommodate as many of these requests as can be balanced against the requirements of running a business, but it is also important to ensure that such requests are handled in a tactful and consistent manner. Also, whilst showing some consideration to a religious group during holy days and festivals can be beneficial, it is also important not to disproportionately favour that group to the disadvantage of colleagues with different (or no) religious beliefs.

It is generally unadvisable to offer paid special leave for such time off requests because an employer needs to ensure they do not discriminate in favour of a particular religion. However, employers should consider the fact that requests may, depending on the individual circumstances involved, be dealt with by using:

  • annual leave entitlement
  • flexi-time arrangements
  • one-off/discretionary flexi time off to be made up at a later time
  • unpaid leave

Whichever option is used will need to be agreed between employer and employee.