In this article
The holy month of Ramadan is observed by Muslims around the globe. Throughout the world, millions of Muslims, including those in the UK, will observe fasting during the month of Ramadan and this will impact many Muslims at work. As there are no public holidays in the UK for non-Christian holy days, Muslim workers may require employers to be flexible with working arrangements and to be able to book time off during Ramadan.
24% of the global population is Muslim and the latest census puts Britain’s Muslim community at some 2.8 million. As many as 93% of Muslims fast during Ramadan, so no matter where you live or work, it is probably safe to assume that you have employees and/or colleagues observing Ramadan. So, this is why supporting employees and/or colleagues during Ramadan is part of building a workplace where everyone is respected and valued.
What is Ramadan?
The word “Ramadan” comes from the Arabic word for “Parched Thirst” and “Sun-Baked Ground”. It simply refers to the name of a month, the ninth month, of the Islamic calendar. This month is considered to be the holiest of the twelve months in a year, as it was in Ramadan that the Prophet Muhammad initially received divine revelation.
Ramadan lasts for a lunar month and it begins when the new moon is sited; as a result the start and finish times of Ramadan change from year to year. During this time many Muslims refrain from eating or drinking during hours of daylight, instead eating before dawn (suhoor) and at sunset (iftar). This means that they will not be able to consume food or water for around 16–17 hours a day, which is particularly arduous in warmer weather. For those who have to work during Ramadan, the physical effects of fasting can be challenging.
When does Ramadan happen?
The exact timing of this important Muslim festival varies each year as the dates depend upon the lunar cycle which rotates by approximately ten days each year. In 2022, Ramadan in the UK was between Saturday 2nd April and Sunday 1st May. In 2023 (1444 in the Islamic calendar) Ramadan in the UK will begin in the evening of Wednesday 22nd March and end in the evening of Friday 21st April. Islamic holidays or festivals always begin at sundown and end at sundown the following day/days ending the holiday or festival.
What happens in Ramadan?
The holy month of Ramadan is divided into three stages. These are known as Ashra of Ramadan. The first ten days of Ramadan are the days of mercy and blessing, the second ten days of Ramadan, that is the 11th day to the 20th day, consist of the Ashra of forgiveness, and the third Ashra is known as safety from the hell (Nijat).
Many working Muslims will be fasting from daybreak to sunset every day throughout Ramadan, which could be around 17 hours of not eating or drinking every day for 30 days. In the UK, this year and for the next few years, Ramadan is in Spring, which means that the fasting day is long. The morning meal will be before dawn, around 3am, and people won’t break their fast until about 9pm. The fast is broken at sunset with a meal called iftar, and most Muslims will break their fast with water and dates, which is traditional. After sunset they are then able to drink and eat without limitation. The elderly, anyone with physical or mental ill-health, pregnant or menstruating women, anyone travelling, and also children are exempt from fasting.
Fasting is not just the act of refraining from food and drink, it is a spiritual cleansing. It is a time of introspection, a focused exertion on patience and prayer, a stillness of the mind to quell the desires of the body and feed the soul. In addition to fasting, during the holy month, Muslims are encouraged to pray five times a day. There are also actions that are considered unacceptable while fasting including the telling of a lie, slander, denouncing someone behind their back, a false oath, greed or covetousness.
Muslims will also spend most of their evenings in a special prayer called Tarawih, which means rest or relaxation; this is usually performed in congregation at a Mosque. The prayer can take anywhere between one to three hours. Tarawih prayers are considered optional (sunnah) or, in other words, not obligatory.
The end of Ramadan is celebrated with the Eid ul Fitr, the Festival of Fast-breaking. Muslims usually go to the Mosque for a special prayer. This is followed by a two- or three-day holiday in which families and friends visit each other, exchange gifts and socialise.
How to support staff in Ramadan
Supporting Muslims at work during this time is not just thinking about working arrangements, it is about showing an understanding, and considering how employers and fellow employees can support individual colleagues.
It is important for employers to understand the challenges facing their employees during Ramadan. Fasting will inevitably have an effect on their productivity and concentration levels and they may find themselves suffering from fatigue. Whilst some Muslims may seek to take time off work during Ramadan, many are likely to continue working during the month.
Employers need to establish how they can provide support whilst also ensuring that they are not placing unreasonable extra burdens upon their other employees as employers have a duty to take care of all employees’ health and safety. They should ideally be carrying out risk assessments for those observing Ramadan and, where necessary, putting in place measures to ensure the safety of Muslim employees and their work colleagues.
When considering what type of support you might be able to provide, start by talking to your Muslim employees and discuss how they would like you, as their employer, to help and support them. Everyone will have a different relationship and approach to their faith, so be mindful not to assume what your employees’ needs might be; provide opportunities where they can openly and safely discuss their needs with you.
Working more flexibly
Options for flexible working and time off are often key to supporting Muslims during Ramadan, or temporarily putting in place remote working arrangements if practicable. Alternatively, employers could consider including earlier starts and earlier finishes, or forgoing lunch breaks for an earlier finish, and rescheduling complex meetings or difficult tasks to the morning when the energy and attention levels of employees observing Ramadan may be higher.
Under the Working Time Regulations 1998, employees are entitled to one mandatory 20-minute break every six hours; however, given the importance placed on prayer during Ramadan, Muslim employees may wish to take rest breaks throughout the day in order to pray. Employers should approach requests for additional prayer breaks sensitively and should think creatively about accommodating requests where possible, such as creating a dedicated prayer room be put aside on the premises for the duration of Ramadan to reduce the amount of time employees need to be away from work during the day. However, employers should be careful to avoid creating a disadvantage for workers who do not need a quiet room, for example, by converting the only rest room, as this might amount to indirect religion or belief discrimination. Good practice would be to consult with all employees before designating a room for prayer and contemplation and to discuss policies for using it.
These are all options to consider; however, an employer should offer the choices to employees for them to decide what might suit them rather than apply them as an expectation of needs.
Booking time off
The Working Time Regulations 1998 provide a minimum annual holiday entitlement of 5.6 weeks, which can include public and bank holidays. Annual leave policies and procedures must be applied without discrimination of any kind. It is particularly important for employers to avoid discrimination when dealing with competing requests for annual leave, or requests that relate to a worker’s protected characteristics such as religion or belief. Whilst employers will need to deal with authorising requests for annual leave in accordance with their usual procedure, again sensitivity should be exercised in dealing with requests for time off during Ramadan and Eid.
The last ten days of Ramadan are considered especially holy. Some Muslim employees might decide to take time off, or ask to change their working patterns to attend all-night prayers. Eid is the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, and employers may find that there is a high demand for annual leave at this time from those who are observing the festival. Recognising that the Islamic calendar is lunar means understanding that Muslims won’t know the exact date upon which Eid will fall too far in advance, as this depends on the sighting of the new moon. This might mean that people may need to request time off at relatively short notice, whilst others may request a range of 2–3 days off to make sure they will be off work at the right time.
Employers should ensure that they deal with annual leave requests in a fair manner and full consideration should be given to the practicability of accommodating the requests. However, where it is not possible to grant leave, employers should provide reasoned, rational justifications for the refusal. In addition, where annual leave requests are granted for those observing the festival, employers should ensure that other employees do not suffer any detriment as a result.
In the workplace
If your team’s work involves physical exertion, consider finding proactive adjustments for employees who may be suffering sleep deprivation, low blood sugar and exhaustion as part of their religious practice, as well as being mindful of health and safety issues.
During the Ramadan month, try to avoid holding compulsory team lunches and don’t expect Muslim colleagues to attend corporate lunches or dinners while fasting. Do not expect people to commit to evening events, even if they are just online video meetups. The evenings are dedicated to eating, prayers and potentially virtual gatherings within the family and wider community.
For fasting team members who are working remotely, work out time differences and how their daily routine will impact you in terms of meetings, deadlines, SLAs (service level agreements), etc.
For shift workers, make special allowances for Muslims to take a break at sunset to break their fast particularly if they are frontline workers and still happen to be on shift. This needs to be ample time for them to break their fast, pray and then eat properly.
Avoid placing additional burdens on employees while they are fasting, for example not asking them to do overtime or stay late.
How to respect Ramadan in the workplace
It is in employers’ best interests to make sure that all their employees understand what is involved for those observing Ramadan and the impact of this on the workplace. Employers could put a message on their intranet or employee notice boards, well in advance of the date(s), about Ramadan and the fasting period, with an invitation to employees to make their needs during Ramadan known to either their line manager or to HR. They could also inform all employees about what they as an employer are doing to support Muslim employees and how non-Muslim employees can support their Muslim colleagues.
People should not be shy about asking Muslim colleagues if they will be observing Ramadan. Some people may choose not to take part, perhaps for medical reasons, as fasting is a personal choice. Employers should encourage this type of conversation between colleagues as long as it is respectful and supportive. Employers should encourage employees to be open about their religious observance, and this should be done in a sensitive manner; however, employers, line managers and colleagues should not pry as some employees will be uncomfortable sharing the details of their religious beliefs. Also, employers should not assume that all Muslim employees want to be treated differently because they are fasting.
It is fine for non-Muslim employees to drink and eat in front of Muslim colleagues. They are choosing to fast, so there’s no need to apologise for eating lunch, for example – just don’t offer food or water to them.
How to raise awareness in the workplace about Ramadan
Employers could contact the Muslim Council of Great Britain for information and resources to help raise awareness of Ramadan in the workplace.
Line managers and other workplace colleagues need to be aware of the personal and religious sensitivities of their Muslim employees during the period of Ramadan and Eid. Employers can raise awareness of all key religious events, including Ramadan, by having a calendar of the key religious days and festivals on their intranet or notice boards.
Publicising the dates of Ramadan and explaining about fasting can enable employees to be sensitive to the needs of colleagues who may be observing the fast. This can also help managers to anticipate requests for annual leave.
Workplace law around Ramadan
Employers need to be aware that although providing support to Muslin employees during Ramadan is not a requirement under the Equality Act 2010, employers may wish to consider how they can support workers through a fasting period as part of being a good employer. Employers should, however, take care to ensure that, in doing so, they do not place unreasonable extra burdens on other workers. As well as potentially causing conflict in the workplace, this could amount to less favourable treatment of non-Muslim employees because of religion or belief under the Equality Act 2010 and give rise to claims of discrimination.
It is good practice for employers to include their workplace policy and procedures around religious festivals including Ramadan in relevant HR policies such as Flexible Working, Leave, Health and Safety, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, and Bullying and Harassment so that the entire workforce are fully aware what the employer will provide and what is expected of them as employees.
The UK workforce is comprised of a wealth of cultures, religions and beliefs, all of which make our society richly diverse. Awareness is a building block for an inclusive workplace. Raising awareness of what Ramadan is and making space for the importance of it and its impact on Muslim colleagues during this time, is a great way to build positive team connections.