Cost of Living

How respecting Ramadan at work means more than asking 'not even water?'

Employers and colleagues going beyond just "accommodating" religious obligations, such as Ramadan, for workers makes for a stronger work environment, according to human resources experts.

Taking religious beliefs into account for employees is good for business, say workplace experts

Women serve up food at a fundraising iftar — the breaking of Ramadan fast — in Winnipeg on April 8, 2022. It's the hours before iftar, when many Muslims must observe the fast in their workplaces, that can be trickier. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar marks Ramadan, during which observant Muslims fast and abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset.

For up to 30 days, that can mean a significant time spent in the workplace is spent fasting, and being around those who are not refraining from eating or drinking.

This can be an adjustment from a standard day at work for Muslims, and workplace experts say it's important for employers and workplace colleagues to proactively and inclusively adjust work life during times of religious observance.

"We've got to have a workplace where every story matters and where every person has a sense of belonging," said Nouman Ashraf, assistant professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

Nouman Ashraf says its important for people to bring their "full selves" to work, and that includes factoring in experiences such as Ramadan. (CBC)

According to Ashraf, who is Muslim himself, religious practices such as Ramadan have functional aspects that may need adjustments to aspects of work life such as scheduling. Waking up prior to dawn to eat, and staying up later for family gatherings to break a fast can change timing.

"Pay attention to people's energy level and ask them, do they need any flexibility in their schedule?" said Ashraf, who pointed out some may want to start or end work at different times from usual.

Trust and inclusivity in the workplace is good for business

Human resource experts such as Helen Ofosu point out that when employees feel they can be themselves at work, it's good for business.

As a work and business psychologist based in Ottawa, Ont., Ofosu said this can be reflected in things like avoiding food-related gatherings during the month of Ramadan. The trick is to make sure that a team feels it can be open about identities at work. 

Helen Ofosu is a workplace psychologist and says being inclusive of religious practices like Ramadan is good for productivity. (Submitted by Helen Ofosu)

"My sense is that people don't share certain things because they think it may be held against them. So if you create an environment where there is more psychological safety, than people don't feel they to hide their real identity," said Ofosu.

Take the lunch out of lunch and learn

Ofosu suggested workplaces avoid things such as working lunches during Ramadan, or even small gestures like setting aside workplace foods for those observing a fast.

If your office does birthday cakes, make sure someone fasting gets a slice of that cake set aside for after sunset, basically.

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And if your office does "lunch and learns," try just a "learn" during Ramadan.

"From a business perspective, you know, you're paying somebody 100 per cent of their salaries. So wouldn't you love to get close to 100 per cent effort rather than the person having to dedicate 20 or 30 percent of their bandwidth just to surviving the realities of being excluded?" said Ofusu.

Adjusting schedules and workload is key

Being open about needs during Ramadan, and adjusting work accordingly, has been the reality for Edmonton cardiologist Dr. Nazneem Wahab through decades of observing the Ramadan fast.

Her colleagues have long been aware she practices fasting annually and are cognizant this can change when she can see patients and complete tasks. Wahab told The Cost of Living she adjusts her own schedule and her appointments with patients to make sure she's taking into account her needs during Ramadan.

Nazneem Wahab is a cardiologist in Edmonton, who adjusts her workplace schedule to incorporate fasting at Ramadan each year. (Submitted by Nazneem Wahab)

"I want to ensure that my attention is still very full and very focused on my patients; I'm seeing my patients when I'm optimally energized. I plan my day accordingly, that way they get the best of me," said Wahab.

Even something as basic as how much she speaks aloud during the day is monitored and adjusted at work by Dr. Wahab — after all, when you can't drink water during the day, this can become a concern.

"I try and monitor that enough so that I'm not getting too tired doing those things through the course of the day."

Meaningful when colleagues ask about fasting

For Muslims such as Saman Siddiqui, being acknowledged goes a long way.

The Georgetown, Ont. resident has previously been a schoolteacher while fasting, and schedules usually cannot adjust in workplaces such as an elementary school.

Fellow teachers and colleagues asking questions mean a lot to Siddiqui when she is fasting, such as asking if someone needs space where they can pray if necessary, or asking if they need time and a location to break their fast if they are working during that time.

"Those things are so, so welcome and so helpful for Muslims ... that can really help them just have one less thing to worry about and let them incorporate their faith into their lifestyle," said Siddiqui.

Talking about Ramadan is a good idea

According to Ashraf, it's important to address religious practices such as Ramadan in the workplace as they can and do affect performance. Assuming that religious beliefs should remain private is not always the right move, he said.

Discussing practices such as Ramadan begins with having a prior and existing relationship at work — both between colleagues, and between managers and employees.

"What we need are our empathetic colleagues, people who are interested in walking a mile in somebody else's shoes...  it assumes that people can bring their full selves to work and whatever is happening in their personal lives as it informs their performance is fair game for them to share," said Ashraf.

On the front lines in the workplace, Muslims such as Nazneem Wahab said it's not just on managers and peers to bring the subject up.

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"I think it's a two-way street. An open and inclusive environment is just fundamental anywhere. I also think there's an individual responsibility as a Muslim to bring this conversation to the table," said Wahab.

That can mean answering the question "not even water?!" when friends and colleagues ask about what she can or cannot have during Ramadan, according to Wahab.

Muslims begin their fast with a breakfast before sunrise. This is a photo of what people may call "suhoor." (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

"I laugh! … It's not natural to a whole lot of other people when they are surprised and they go, 'You don't drink anything or anything in all that time?' I don't really get too fazed by this," she said.

However, the Rotman School's Nouman Ashraf did have pointers for how to address questions about Ramadan.

"Be respectful. Do engage as if the person is still a normal colleague as opposed to someone who is infirm or about to pass out. That's not true," said Ashraf.

"Do not be overbearing with questions. Keep it casual. Keep it normal, you know, fun."

Written and produced by Anis Heydari
Find him on Twitter @RadioAnis or email