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The Real Hunger Games: Fasting in the Workplace

June 15, 2014 by Ginella Massa

Like most people, I can get a little grouchy when I miss a meal. I’m sure many of us can relate to that Snickers commercial where the football player turns into a slow-moving, crabby Betty White because he hasn’t had something to eat. “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” says the slogan. We’ve all been there. And for the next month, friends and colleagues of Muslims may wish to echo that phrase.

For 30 days during the month of Ramadan, which will begin around June 28, practising Muslims will wake up before dawn to eat, then abstain from food and water until sunset. While those who work in Muslim-majority countries may enjoy some reprieve from employers who recognize most workers are fasting, Muslims living in the West will go hours without food for fuel while carrying on with their duties as doctors, lawyers, teachers, business owners, and skilled labourers.

The act of fasting is meant to teach self-restraint, provide a means of spiritual reflection, and remind us to appreciate our blessings. For the most part, Muslims will aim to get through the days without voicing much complaint. However, this Ramadan will prove more difficult than others since it will span across July. The long summer days will mean a much longer fast than usual – about 17 hours of daylight, withiftaar (the meal marking the breaking of the fast) well past 9 p.m. in many cities. Even the most seasoned fasters will start to feel the effects of the fast by late afternoon, when dinner is still hours away and there is much work left to be done in the office.

So here are a few tips to help make your Muslim colleagues’ workdays (and yours) a little easier this Ramadan.

1. Accommodation benefits everyone

Many Muslims may ask to skip their hour lunch break, and instead go home early. Some might want to shift their hours to earlier or later in the day. Others may have the option to work from home. Whatever the request, Muslim employees want to continue to provide an optimal performance even while fasting, and are looking for a mutual compromise to make that happen.

2. Be understanding

Low energy tends to be a bigger issue than hunger when it comes to fasting. Many Muslims also perform special Taraweeh prayers every night after dinner, cutting into precious sleep time. Keep that in mind if your Muslim colleague seems tired, or isn’t as chipper as usual. They may prefer to work silently in their cubicle than chat by the water cooler – don’t take it personally.

3. Avoid assigning strenuous tasks

Depending on the nature of the job, avoiding strenuous activities may be impossible. Those who have physically demanding jobs such as athletes, firefighters, or construction workers have it especially hard during Ramadan. But if there is an option between assigning staff to work out in the sun, versus an air-conditioned building, be considerate of your Muslim

employees who are not able to drink water during the day.

4. Avoid asking why someone is not fasting

Muslims are exempt from fasting if they are young children, the elderly, sick, travelling, pregnant, breastfeeding or menstruating. This can mean awkward conversations for women who don’t care to discuss their reproductive cycle, or those with health concerns they don’t feel comfortable disclosing. Some may not observe the fast because they find it too difficult. Whatever the reason, your colleague reserves the right not to be quizzed about it.

5. Enjoy your lunch

It’s okay if you forgot your Muslim friend was fasting when you invited them to grab lunch. And don’t apologize for enjoying those homemade brownies at your desk. Anyone who is observing the fast is doing so willingly, and understands that the world will continue to turn without them. Just because they’re not eating, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

6. When is Eid?

The end of Ramadan is marked by the celebration of Eid-ul-Fitr. Eid day usually includes a visit to the mosque for Eid prayer, lots of delicious food shared with family and friends, and a donation to charity to remember those less fortunate. But most Muslims can’t tell you exactly when Eid will be. Since the lunar calendar is used, most rely on the sighting of the moon to mark the passing of Islamic months, which can be 29 or 30 days. Muslims in the same city may celebrate Eid on different days because of discrepancies with the moon sighting. Either way, Muslim employees may ask for Monday or Tuesday off, and they likely won’t know which it will be until the night before.

You can wish your Muslim friends and colleages a “Ramadan Kareem!” – meaning “generous Ramadan,” a common greeting – this weekend. And if you want to learn more about fasting in Ramadan, don’t be afraid to ask!

(This article was originally published as "How You Can Help Colleagues During Ramadan" in the Globe and Mail Careers section June 25, 2014)

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About the Author

Ginella Massa is a Canadian journalist, producer, and media trainer. She became Canada's first Hijab-wearing reporter in 2015. Ginella  has worked for CityNews, CTV News, Rogers TV, and NEWSTALK 1010.  She frequently writes about issues affecting Muslims in North America. 

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