Each year during Ramadan, Hala Baig fields many questions from co-workers.
But she doesn't mind it. She enjoys using the time leading up to and throughout Ramadan to provide context to an often-misunderstood Muslim tradition. These conversations allow Baig to help colleagues broaden their perspective and learn about different cultures.
"In a world where multiculturalism is growing rapidly, educating others is part of creating a welcoming culture of diversity and inclusion both in and outside the workplace," Baig, a Muslim employee with the financial services company Earnest, wrote in a 2021 blog.
Ramadan is the fourth pillar of Islam and the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. From April 2 to May 2 this year, all Muslims who are healthy and have reached puberty are required to abstain from eating, drinking and smoking daily from dawn until sunset.
The occasion also involves prayer, acts of charity and introspection.
"Ramadan is much more than abstaining from food and drink," said Haroon Imtiaz, communications coordinator for the Islamic Center of North America. "It is a time of intense devotion and spiritual practice."
Many employers remain uneducated on certain aspects of Ramadan. They may also not know how to cater to Muslim employees during this time. But learning more about the occasion and explicitly showing support to Muslim workers can make this group feel a sense of belonging.
Can You Eat Around Muslim Employees?
Practicing Ramadan can be difficult for some Muslim employees.
For example, intermittent fasting can result in headaches, lethargy and crankiness. It can also cause people to feel sick, according to Harvard Medical School. These effects can disrupt concentration throughout the workday.
"In my experience, usually the first few days are most difficult because your body is adjusting to a new eating schedule," said Edward Ahmed Mitchell, deputy executive director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C. "After the first few days, you get normalized to fasting. By end of month, most people are completely used to it."
Many Muslims in the U.S. prefer a daytime work shift during Ramadan so that they may break the fast with their families and attend evening prayers. But 9-to-5 jobs in an office setting often include luncheon meetings or daytime celebrations that involve food.
While co-workers may be uncomfortable eating around their Muslim colleagues, Mitchell said they shouldn't feel this way. He explained that Muslims participating in Ramadan witness their children eating in front of them, as young kids are excluded from fasting.
"It varies by person, but typically Muslims do not mind others eating around us—it doesn't offend or bother us," Mitchell said. "Some people are sensitive to eating around Muslim employees, but it's really not a problem. Just be sure to avoid offering food to us during this time."
Many Muslim employees still want to feel included in workplace activities. Baig described how her co-workers invite her on periodic walks during the day rather than to lunch or on coffee runs. Baig has even had colleagues fast for the day alongside her to get a sense of what it's like.
"This has been one of the most meaningful acts of inclusion I've ever felt at any job," she said. "At a time when being an openly practicing Muslim in the United States can be dangerous, Earnest has made our space warm, inviting, and adaptable to all my needs."
'They Can Still Do Their Jobs'
Companies can support Muslim employees in simple ways.
For example, colleagues and managers can wish Muslim workers a "happy, blessed and successful Ramadan," Imtiaz said. These words can convey awareness of Ramadan and kindness to Muslim employees during this time, he noted.
"We can also show support and kindness simply by asking questions and expressing a willingness to learn more," Imtiaz said.
Managers can also take the time to provide special considerations for Muslim employees. This can mean decreasing work hours as needed or allocating more demanding tasks for the morning when those who are fasting typically have more energy.
If Muslim employees are required to work late, employers should allow some time and space for them to break the fast and perform a prayer during sunset, Mitchell said. This break in work is also important for employees such as police officers or firefighters, who may work evening shifts.
Flexibility is particularly important during Eid ul-Fitr, a festival marking the end of Ramadan. Mitchell likened the celebration to Christmas, as many Muslims take a few days off from work to celebrate. They often attend a prayer and sermon in a mosque and exchange gifts with loved ones.
But Muslim workers might not know the exact date of Eid ul-Fitr until hours before it happens, as the celebration depends on the sighting of the crescent moon. The festival can last between one and three days.
"Muslim employees might not know until night before," Mitchell said. "Employers should be willing to accommodate."
Mitchell has noticed that some non-Muslim employees feel bad for their Muslim co-workers who are fasting and give them fewer job responsibilities. But he explained that Muslim workers should not be treated any differently than other employees.
"While working and Ramadan does create certain challenges, the Muslim community has been navigating those challenges for years," Mitchell said. "They can still do their jobs; they don't need tasks taken from them."