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Employment

Do we have to go to the work Christmas party?

The government has triggered Plan B asking everyone to work from home where they can, but what does this mean for the work Christmas party? And anyway, what if you simply don’t want to go, Covid or no Covid?

Just as the festive season arrived, the Omicron variant of coronavirus first identified in South Africa touched down in the UK. Here’s what we know about the issue a lot of people want answers to – what about my work Christmas party?

What threat does the Omicron variant pose to the Christmas party?

Early reports from South Africa suggest the Omicron variant is “highly infectious” but symptoms are mild. The World Health Organisation said many early patients are university students and there are suspicions they could have been infected at a super-spreader event. 

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This would skew the data significantly, so authorities are in a race to limit the spread of the variant while trying to understand it more fully. The WHO said it could take days to “several weeks” to gather all the information, the UK government is talking more in the region of two weeks.

The Health Security Agency reported 817 confirmed cases of Omicron in the UK on December 9.

However the numbr of cases that have not been reported is likely to be much higher. More than a thousand people a day are being infected with the Omicron variant in Britain with cases doubling every three days, The Times has reported. 

The world’s biggest outbreak yet of the new Omicron variant was reported on Friday December 3 and, yes, it happened at a Christmas party. One attendee to the party in Norway had reportedly been to South Africa recently.

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What’s the government saying about office Christmas parties?

Well, it depends where they are being hosted. In the office? Not allowed. But at the pub? That’s a different story. 

Boris Johnson has announced that people in England should work from home if they can from December 13, triggering ‘plan B’ of the government’s Covid-19 winter response.

Plan B also extends – from Friday December 9 – the legal requirement to wear a face mask in most public indoor venues, including theatres and cinemas, with exemptions where it is not practical, “such as when eating, drinking, exercising or singing”. 

“Employers should use the rest of this week to discuss working arrangements with their employees,” said Johnson at a press conference on December 8, “but from Monday you should work from home if you can. Go to work if you must, but work from home if you can.

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Unlike workplaces, hospitality venues including restaurants, pubs and bars remain open, so it seems that Christmas parties may continue in these locations. 

The government has not revised its message that there is “no need” to cancel Christmas parties. 

It has been suggested that the government’s reluctance to place any rules and restrictions on work Christmas parties specifically may have something to do with the alleged Downing Street Christmas party that took place last year and has led to national outrage.

Health Secretary Javid has advised people to take a Covid test before heading out to a social gathering, including work-based festivities. 

“If you are invited to a Christmas party, there’s quite a few people there, maybe you want to take an LFT (lateral flow test) test before you go. Go to the party, but just be cautious,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. 

Are work Christmas parties still going ahead?

Well, it depends who you ask. Office Christmas parties are being cancelled and employees told to work from home as companies take precautions despite reassurance from ministers. 

Some restaurants are reporting a pattern of no-shows as parties back-out last minute, but these let-downs aren’t excessive. One restaurateur in Wales said there was “a worry” Christmas would flop for a second time for the hospitality industry. 

In a sign that restaurateurs are becoming concerned, job ads in the hospitality and catering sector fell 25 per cent the week after the Omicron variant was announced as arriving in the UK, according to new data released by jobs search engine Adzuna.

“Uncertainty is hitting the hospitality industry and hiring has nosedived in the last week. Employers are holding back hiring as they wait and see the effect of the variant on their businesses, be that cancelled Christmas bookings or staffing issues caused by employees needing to isolate,” said Andrew Hunter, co-founder of Adzuna. 

‘Covid aside, I don’t want to go. Do I have to?’

Last year’s Christmas was an all-round flop, with no work Christmas parties allowed – except those held over video calls – and the big day itself leaving many people separated from family or friends. 

So for many of us, the prospect of mixing with work colleagues we may not know very well and making a good impression can feel daunting to say the least. For others, it can be seriously anxiety inducing. 

Writer Matt Haig recently spoke to the Big Issue about how difficult Christmas can be for those struggling with their mental health

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“Christmas is problematic for a lot of people in terms of mental health, because of the excess alcohol, different routines… As with any mental health crisis that’s related to a time of year, it’s really important to remember that it’s a transient temporary situation,” he told The Big Issue. 

So it’s not surprising that there are currently at least six active threads on Reddit discussing; “How mandatory are non mandatory office Christmas parties?”; “Is it bad for my career if I don’t go to my first work Christmas party?” and “Am I required to go to the company Christmas party?”

Business woman Ruth Kudzi, founder of Optimus Coach Academy, admits to skipping the work Christmas party on more than one occasion when she wasn’t feeling confident. 

“It is okay to give it a miss if it will impact your social anxiety or mental health. I think that we need to rethink how we frame things like Christmas parties as if it is making our teams feel anxious or impacting on their mental health we need to ask if it is the right thing to do for everyone,” she told The Big Issue.

While you do run the risk of not being seen as a team player or contributing to the organisational culture, “organisations who believe this are outdated and are not inclusive in their approach. The pro is that you protect your own mental wellbeing,” she continued.

But what about lying to get out of it? 

For Kudzi, if you feel that you have to be untruthful to avoid something that isn’t even in your job role, “it sounds like you are not in an organisation which values you as an employee.”

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