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Helping your employees cope with Ramadan

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Fasting is an opportunity to practice patience, but may also present challenges to your employees

Fasting in Ramadan is one of the key pillars of the Islamic faith along with belief in One God and His Messenger Muhammad (peace be upon him), praying, giving in charity and pilgrimage to Mecca. Living in a consumerist society it is too easy to over indulge and to eat beyond our needs, with so much food readily available at every turn flooded and bombarded by marketing for fast foods followed closely by the latest fad diets or exercise regimes. Fasting helps a person to reset the body clock and eating enough to take away the hunger without eating beyond our needs.

Fasting during Ramadan involves abstaining from food, drink and sexual relations from sunrise to sunset for a month, which in summertime means from 2:30 am to 9:30 pm. Many also choose to spend time in prayer at the mosques in the late evening.

Sleep deprivation impacts on the fasting person possibly more so than the hunger and thirst as after the fast opens many spend their evening in prayer in the mosque until 1am, followed by a pre-fasting meal at 2am before praying once more and then sleeping around 3am.

This will mean employees will be increasingly tired as the day progresses and mentally have lower levels of concentration. This is especially the case during the first week as a person adjusts to the change in sleeping and eating patterns, and during the last week as the month takes its toll, with many catching up on sleep when they return home at the end of the working day, until the fast opens later that evening.

Having flexibility over working times where possible can help support fasting employees, whether this means a later start time or an earlier finish time while maintaining core hours. As fasting employees don’t need a lunch hour, giving a shortened lunch break within minimum legal stipulations helps so that time can be used to make up time, or this time can be used for a midday power nap. Many fasting people tend to pray more in this particular month, so employers can expect to see staff wanting to spend part of their lunch break praying either on site or at local mosques if within reachable distance, particularly on Fridays.

Some employers may feel they need to be careful not to eat or drink around fasting employees, which, while accommodating, is not necessary. The fast should not be impacting on others and in most cases should not even be noticeable.

Some fasting staff may be grouchier, so making some allowances for the reduced sugar levels can go a long way but this does not excuse rude behaviour. I recall a fasting colleague who had to abstain from smoking while fasting and this definitely impacted on his temperament. Similarly those who drink considerable amounts of tea or coffee during the day can also go through withdrawal symptoms as the body detoxifies.

One of the biggest challenges facing fasting employees impacting on employers is the end of the month of Ramadan. As the Islamic calendar follows the lunar calendar it is dependent on the sighting of the moon. The completion of the month of fasting is marked by a celebration called Eid ul Fitr with many staff wanting to book this day off as annual leave. Depending on the number of Muslim employees the employer has this can mean a real impact on business if Eid falls on a working day.

This is made more difficult by the fact that until the moon is sighted there is uncertainty around which day Eid is actually going to be. In the UK there is often a split in the Muslim community with some tending to follow a local sighting, with others following a sighting made overseas. This can help employers continue business operations while allowing their Muslim employees to celebrate one of two key religious celebrations. Many spend the Eid celebration with family, which in the case of many includes extended family often in different cities. Having that conversation early with your Muslim employees will help to plan work around their leave to minimise impact on the business.

Employers need to comply with the Equality Act 2010 by ensuring no one is disadvantaged in the work place due to their religion or belief and treating less favourably fasting employees or having policies that lead to a disadvantage to those observing Ramadan can give rise to claims of discrimination. Conversely being proactive, sensitive and supportive can be a great driver for employee engagement and inclusion.

The main driving principle behind fasting is to realise if one can control their most basic physical needs then to become more aware of how one conducts oneself should, by contrast, be easy. These 30 days are effectively an intense training programme to condition one’s thinking and to take stock through reflection to become more aware of one’s Lord and to improve one’s character and behaviour for the next 11 months post Ramadan. The month is regarded as a month of mercy and forgiveness and Muslims are required to exercise patience and practice forgiveness.

I am always somewhat surprised with how easy the month is and saddened by how quickly it passes. I am also surprised by learning the limits of my physical form and realising how much more we can actually do.

Shakil Butt is HROD director at the Islamic Relief Worldwide