Last reviewed 9 April 2021
At Ramadan, participating employees often have to manage extra physical and mental stresses, fatigue and dehydration. Jon Herbert describes how flexibility, discussion and forward planning from employers can help everyone involved.
Ramadan is the ninth and holiest month in the Islamic calendar and a time of fasting, self-restraint, reflection, generosity, family and community. Muslims observing Ramadan begin each day with the pre-sunrise meal of Suhoor (Suhūr) and only eat and drink again at the post-sunset meal of Iftar and call to evening prayer.
Because the month is lunar, Ramadan’s start and end date are set by sightings of the new moon. This year it runs from roughly 12 April to 12 May. When this coincides with good weather, the result can be very long, hot working days that start long before ordinary working hours and end up to 17 hours later. Not even drinking water is permitted.
In many parts of the world, the working day is shortened during Ramadan. However, where this is not practicable, there are still many reasonable steps that companies and employees can discuss and agree to take together.
The requirements for Ramadan
By law, companies must treat requests concerning religion equally. However, providing they can show that these have been dealt with reasonably and fairly, organisations are not under any obligation to take decisions that detrimentally affect their business.
It is also important to know that the Islamic faith does not require people with a particular health risk to take on the full rigours of the month. This often applies to senior workers, pregnant women and those with diabetes. In these and other cases, individuals are strongly advised to consult a doctor before fasting and should drink water throughout the day.
What can employers do to help?
It is less of an issue with so many working from home or furloughed during the pandemic, but from a business perspective, employers need to be aware that certain jobs and tasks can introduce not only health and safety but also productivity and human relationship issues that can frequently be addressed positively.
Examples are the use of heavy equipment, manual labour, driving, operating safety-critical machinery, working at height, any situation where dizziness and fatigue could have health and safety implications, focusing on complex tasks and joining late afternoon meetings.
It is possible for new risks to be created. However, rather than simply consulting a fixed list, a more comprehensive course of action for many employers is to look at specific tasks within their own organisations. Where there is significant change, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommends carrying out new risk assessments.
Planning work activities around the needs of fasting employees is helpful. This may mean lightening or sharing workloads to allow reduced hours, extra breaks and additional rest times. Critical tasks and meetings are best scheduled for the morning when employees may find it easier to concentrate, with routine tasks later in the day.
Fatigue and dehydration
It is important to be able to identify the warning signs of fatigue and dehydration. Fasting can affect people in different ways, such as irritability or lack of energy. Support from managers and colleagues is always helpful. Employees should be encouraged to take rests and breaks when tired or dizzy.
Making suitable arrangements for first aid or medical assistance in case of emergencies is advised, as is adequate supervision of all employees, avoiding lone working and ensuring that employees rest indoors during the hottest part of the day. Employees should feel able to talk about any adverse effects.
Courtesy and understanding
Ramadan’s requirements are rigorous. Arranging separate welfare facilities — so that fasting employees can avoid canteens, for example — is often appreciated. Co-workers should be made aware so that they avoid offering food and drink to those fasting when sharing food with co-workers. Or they may choose to avoid eating altogether in the presence of fasting colleagues.
Ramadan can be an opportunity to foster closer team relations and teamwork. Encourage this by making information about Ramadan and other religious festivals part of your employee communications.
It may be worth communicating to your workforce that, according to the British Islamic Medical Association, Islamic scholars have confirmed that the vaccine does not invalidate the fast.
It is usually sensible for employees to tell their managers that they are fasting, particularly if they would like to adjust their breaks and workload to take time off for additional prayer or worship. They might also prefer to take annual leave. Whether this is possible is a management issue.
What can employees do?
Staff observing Ramadan are encouraged and advised to choose their diet wisely and modify their eating habits appropriately to take maximum advantage of nutritious food and safeguard their health. Suggestions include the following.
Take the Suhoor meal as close to dawn as possible to sustain energy levels throughout the day.
When breaking the fast, avoid caffeine and sugary drinks while drinking plenty of fluids: at least three litres between Iftar and Suhoor is recommended.
Manage personal workloads so that strenuous tasks are tackled in the morning.
Take regular breaks in a cool or shaded area if working outside.
Monitor how they feel personally, and keep an eye on colleagues.
If they are still travelling at this time, plan journeys to work with plenty of spare time.
Keep communication channels open with colleagues and management.
Try to get at least seven hours sleep a night.
Employers should recognise that although the holy month of Ramadan is very important to Muslim employees, fasting and abstaining from any kind of drink between sunrise and sunset can introduce new health and safety risks in the workplace, including tiredness, temporary weakness, difficulties in concentrating and dizziness.
Many organisations such as Acas provide information and advice. Discussion, co-operation and communication are recommended — organisations are not required to compromise business priorities but should consider all requests and needs carefully. Practical changes in daily working routines may be advised and, in some instances, new risk assessments may be needed.