The small accommodations Ali Najaf’s employer offered will make a big difference over the next several weeks, as he and millions of Muslim Canadians celebrate the holy month of Ramadan.
“Our teams used to host work lunches, but they shifted to work dinners, so I can end the fast at that time,” he said.
Mr. Najaf, a human-resources professional based in Vancouver, said his former employers had also offered a flexible work schedule that allowed him to forgo his lunch break and instead leave work an hour earlier. Some had also let him take the day off for Eid, the festival that marks the end of the fast, in exchange for another statutory holiday.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions, so sometimes employees need to speak for themselves to ask for accommodations,” he said. “Some are too shy to ask for such accommodations, so it should come from the top down; management should be aware and talk to their employees about how to support them.”
According to Statistics Canada, Islam is the second most common religion in the country after Christianity, and the share of Muslims has more than doubled over the past 20 years. As of 2021 there were 1.8 million Muslim-Canadians, representing nearly 5 per cent of the country’s population. Last week marked the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, a 30-day period when observers abstain from a range of prohibited activities – including eating and drinking – between sunrise and sunset.
Despite the significant share of Canadians who observe Ramadan, misunderstandings are common and often result in uncomfortable workplace situations.
“A friend of mine already had a situation where her boss, in an effort to be inclusive, designated one of the days of the week to have a Ramadan lunch, which is hilarious,” said Steven Zhou, a spokesperson for the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
All joking aside, Mr. Zhou said this period offers a rare opportunity for employers, managers and human-resources professionals to engage teams in constructive conversations about cultural belonging.
“People often have a lot of questions, and Canadians are often walking on eggshells when it comes to questions about religion, especially about Islam, and assume every question is an opportunity for faux pas,” he said. “I think they should take this time to relax a little bit and have some conversations at work; that can be really valuable.”
Under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms employers are required to make “reasonable accommodations” for employees to practise their religion freely, so long as it doesn’t cause “undue hardship” to the business. Employers can also demonstrate addition gestures of support during Ramadan, such as designating a prayer room, providing flexible work options, providing a day off for Eid and avoiding daytime events where food is served.
“Just be mindful as a neighbour, a co-worker, a citizen,” said Mr. Zhou. “People’s blood sugar is lower, people might not be in the best of moods all the time, they might feel more tired, but if you’ve been doing this your whole life, it’s also something that you get used to.”
Though some employers might be concerned that the physical challenges associated with Ramadan could negatively affect productivity, Mr. Zhou said often the opposite is true. He pointed to former Toronto Raptors player, basketball Hall of Fame inductee and practising Muslim Hakeem Olajuwon as an example of someone who often performed better while fasting.
“Generally, what I’ve seen is people’s productivity and alertness either doesn’t take much of a hit, or sometimes people are actually more alert during Ramadan,” he said.
Mr. Zhou’s recommendation for managers and employers is to engage in private conversations with employees who observe Ramadan to discuss how to best support them during this time, but also invites them to open the dialogue to the rest of the team. “It might behoove them to spread awareness about what their Muslim co-workers are going through, just to reduce the number of awkward conversations,” he said.
Doing so, according to Nouman Ashraf, an associate professor of organizational behaviour and human-resources management at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, invites everyone to bring their whole selves to work, regardless of their religious identity.
“It can also be a great moment to connect with folks around their spirituality, faith, identity, which often remain masked or hidden or unexplored,” he said. “My advice is to practise what I call ‘inclusion without intrusion,’ so understand what conversations people feel comfortable and up to having, and which they’re not.”
Prof. Ashraf added that seeking engagement through open dialogue can be of significant value in Canada’s multicultural and increasingly global work environment.
“We can’t talk about belonging unless we facilitate engagement,” he said. “Having a learner’s mindset is my best piece of advice. You don’t have to sweat, you don’t have to be anxious, you don’t have to be worried, you don’t have to be a perfectionist. Start with who you are, put on your learner’s cap, and go [into conversations] with sincerity and humility.”