Ramadan and the workplace

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The working week can be gruelling enough, but imagine if you could not reach for that cup of coffee to perk you up or, deprived of sleep, you had to miss lunch every day for several weeks.

The majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are facing this challenge over the next month as Ramadan, a 30 day period of reflection, prayer and fasting, begins. From today, Muslims, including most of the three million followers of Islam in the UK, will abstain from food and drink between sunrise and sunset. The breaking of their fast late at night, along with additional evening prayers, can also disrupt sleeping patterns.

While working as a journalist in Afghanistan with Muslim colleagues, I experienced the toll of fasting during work hours. I chose not to eat or drink in front of those observing the fast. Often by mid-afternoon I had a searing headache, flagging energy levels and could no longer think clearly.

While the northern hemisphere does not have the soaring temperatures of the Middle East, this year European Muslims face the most challenging Ramadan in three decades as it coincides with the summer equinox. Many will be fasting for 18 to 20 hours a day.

In traditionally Muslim countries, working hours are often curtailed during Ramadan. But what can Western employers do to sensitively respond to their Muslim staff’s needs during one of the holiest times in the Islamic calendar?

In the UK, legally employers are not allowed to treat employees less favourably because of their religion. An employer is, however, permitted to refuse requests connected to Ramadan if there is a clear and identifiable business reason which is not because of the employee’s faith. “In practice, and for the majority of employers, ensuring a harmonious and lawful approach to Ramadan in the workplace will be mostly a question of common sense and fair treatment,” says London-based Equalities and Labour lawyer Schona Jolly.

Both employers and Muslim staff agree that it is important to have an open discussion ahead of the fast. Asif Sadiq, who heads up the Equality and Inclusion department for the City of London Police, said the priority was to balance requirements as a business against the needs of staff members. “The key thing is having conversations with your staff members rather than to have the assumption that everyone’s going to have the same needs,” he said.

Sadiq tries to assist Muslim team members through flexibility with shift patterns that start or finish at more convenient times, or by granting shorter lunch breaks in exchange for leaving earlier when possible. As an associate for Inclusive Employers – a body for employers dedicated to inclusive workplaces, he is inundated with requests for Ramadan training sessions.

“Of course we have to look at demand and what sort of implication it will have on the rest of the team,” he said. “What I’ve found from personal experience is that it might mean we’d meet halfway.” One major step has been to provide rooms for traditional Ramadan prayers. “We book out one of our meeting rooms for the month during prayer times,” he said, adding that a clean white sheet served as a prayer mat.

The NHS, one of the biggest employers of Muslims in the UK, also has multi-faith prayer rooms in many of its trusts and allows flexibility with shifts. “The NHS provides a wide range of adjustments for Muslims and other staff,” said a spokesman. This follows a general trend where larger organisations want to make life “more comfortable” for Muslim staff, argued Sadiq.

As an associate for Inclusive Employers – a body for employers dedicated to inclusive workplaces – he is inundated with requests for Ramadan training sessions. These growing efforts are appreciated by Muslim employees like Visaal Hussain, who is facing his second working Ramadan at a Teeside law firm. He advocates talking openly about the challenges of Ramadan with employers.

“Just having the conversation would be a morale-booster, and I personally have experienced that even small amounts of kindness do go a long way, especially when fasting,” he said. “Personally I believe that sleep deprivation is the greatest challenge in regard to the workplace as it can affect productivity,” he said. “The business I work for have kindly altered my hours of work so that I start work at a later time, and then work remotely in the evening to make up for the hours I have missed.”

Saema Mohammad, a Human Resources consultant at the Nottingham Community and Volunteer Service, said that some employees may wish to have a “cat nap” during their lunch hour. As a mother of two, Saema’s Ramadan routine typically starts at 2.30 am, when she prepares the suhoor, or pre-dawn meal, followed by prayer, and sleep. She rises again at 7.30 am to take her sons to school, then heads to the office. Saema breaks her fast around 9.30 pm, prays for 1-2 hours more and goes to bed at midnight.

“In terms of work, I’m not going to lie, it is very difficult, especially in the afternoon when you hit that slump,” she said. “Personally I try to do work that requires a lot of brain power in the morning, when I’m fresh.” From an HR viewpoint, Saema recommends scheduling important meetings for Muslim staff in the morning, when concentration levels are higher, and to avoid inviting them to appointments where “food is going to be the main focal point.”

She also suggests “creating a team spirit” through Muslim and non-Muslim colleagues sharing an ‘iftar’ meal together, the breaking of the fast. In the US, companies like Cisco Systems, Google, Apple and Oracle have all held iftars.

Alex Davda, a workplace psychologist at Ashridge Executive Education, Dubai, believes sensitivity can go a long way during Ramadan. “If your colleagues are fasting, just be considerate. Don’t talk about what you’re going to have for lunch,” he said.

More understanding between both employers and staff is a win-win. “If you give flexibility over a very important month to people, I’m sure they will be more committed and engaged in the organisation longer term,” said Davda.

Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.

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