Supporting Employees during Ramadan

The Islamic month of Ramadan begins on April 23 this year. According to the 2015 census, 14% of Singapore’s population identifies as Muslim—and many of them will be observing the season through day-long fasting and extra prayers. Singapore is a highly diverse nation, and we should all do what we can to support our Muslim colleagues and employees. Avoid discriminating based on a belief or religion, and focus on creating an inclusive, welcoming environment for all.

Here’s everything you need to know about Ramadan and how it will affect your employees.

What is Ramadan?

‘Ramadan’ is the name for the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It’s believed that the Prophet Muhammad first received divine revelations during this time, making it the holiest month of the year.

In the Islamic calendar, each month begins at the start of a new moon. That’s why the start and end of each month changes every year. If you’ve ever wondered why Ramadan seems to be arriving earlier each year, that’s because it actually does. Back in 2016, for example, Ramadan began on June 6th and ended on July 5th.

When is Ramadan in 2020?

Ramadan 2020 in Singapore will begin in the morning of Friday, 24 April, and ending in the evening of Saturday, 23 May. Here’s the schedule of daily observances during Ramadan by MUIS (Islamic Religious Council of Singapore).

What typically happens during Ramadan?

During Ramadan, Muslims must fast from sunrise to sunset. This means avoiding all food, drink, and everything in between (from cigarettes to chewing gum). Nothing can go past the lips while the sun is out.

Aside from physical ways of breaking a fast, there are other actions to avoid. These include telling a lie, denouncing someone, uttering a false oath, or showing greed or covetousness.

Fasts are finally broken at sundown with iftar, the daily evening meal. This coincides with the time of the evening call to prayer. For many people, breaking a fast is a social act. They may eat together with their colleagues, families, or close friends. And while the sun is down, people are allowed to drink and eat anything they wish (in moderation).

Of course, given how Singapore currently has Circuit Breaker measures in place due to COVID-19, the social aspect of Ramadan has to be physically scaled down to just family members living within the same household. (Though, dining together over video calls can work too!)

In other months of the year, Muslims pray five times a day. But during Ramadan, there is an additional (optional) daily prayer called Tarawih, which takes place late at night. This prayer can be done at home or at a mosque.

Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan

At the end of Ramadan, Muslims celebrate the end of fasting with Eid al-Fitr in a month called Syawal. In Singapore, Eid al-Fitr is a public holiday called Hari Raya Puasa.

Supporting employees during Ramadan

  1. Know when Ramadan takes place and who will be observing it

    Ramadan is a significant time for Muslims, and there’s no need to beat around the bush or tiptoe around the topic. Simply ask your employees whether or not they will be fasting, and ask how you can best support them.

  2. Be understanding and keep everyone in the loop

    It’s not easy to fast for over 12 hours a day. A Muslim’s entire sleeping and eating schedule will be disrupted during Ramadan. Although employees need to be responsible for their behaviour, mood, and performance, colleagues should also consider how work practices, moods, or schedules may change during the month.

    As an employer, part of your responsibility is to help your team maintain and deepen their trust in one another. Holidays can be a great way to build group rapport and improve interpersonal dynamics. For example: why not try asking your employees if they would be open to taking iftar with their colleagues and sharing more about their culture?

  3. Consider flexible working arrangements

    Flexitime options could really help out fasting employees who normally work from nine to six. Some employees may value the option to work through lunch hours and breaks in return for being able to go home earlier.

    In the wake of COVID-19, many companies are also adopting partial work-from-home arrangements. You could do the same, either throughout the holy month or on certain days of the week. Many would value the opportunity to complete their daily workload from home, after iftar.

  4. Be considerate about meals and breaks

    Practising Muslims may not feel comfortable watching people eat and drink while they’re fasting. Of course, social distancing policies apply during Ramadan 2020, so you probably shouldn’t meet contacts in person. But in more normal years, try scheduling meetings at later times or avoiding lunch meetings entirely. You could hold meetings in the office instead and make lunch a separate event.

    If someone is coming to your office for a meeting, the same standard applies. If you’re not sure whether they are fasting, simply offer them some water—if they decline, then you shouldn’t press further.

    Finally, allow employees to change their break times to coincide with prayer times. As long as their requests are reasonable, do your best to accommodate them.

  5. Schedule high-concentration tasks earlier in the day

    By the afternoon, many people—even those who aren’t fasting—tend to be sluggish. At the same time, late nights tend to be a hallmark of Ramadan. Try to schedule tasks that require high levels of focus and concentration in the mornings. This includes planning sessions, strategic meetings, and more.

    For fasting employees, their energy and concentration levels may be lower throughout the month. Prioritise your team’s health and safety; if you are concerned about whether an individual is capable of performing their role while fasting, consider moving them temporarily to a different role until Ramadan is over. This is especially relevant for those working in high-risk environments—think, for example, of engineers in construction sites.

  6. Remember that employees may not be able to commit to evening events

    People who are fasting may spend most of their evenings with their family or their community. Don’t penalise employees who can’t commit to evening events.

    If employees must work after sunset at the office, then make arrangements so that they can take a break for iftar. This break should be long enough for them to break their fast, pray, and eat a full dinner.

  7. Make accommodations for Eid al-Fitr

    Though Hari Raya Puasa lasts for a day in Singapore, employees might request extra days off for their holiday. Eid al-Fitr has the same significance as Chinese New Year or Christmas—some may even want to return home to their countries of origin to spend time with their families and neighbourhoods.

    During the last 10 days of Ramadan, Muslims are encouraged to spend nights in the mosque and join in the nightly prayers. The Night of Power, or Laylat al Qadr, takes place during one of the odd-numbered last 10 days of holy month—prayers are said to be more effective during this time. Some of your employees may ask for more flexible shift times or longer leaves.

    Be understanding with employees who are not able to give specific dates for when they’d like to take leave. The actual day of Eid depends on when the new moon is sighted, so plans may change suddenly. The uncertainty of these dates means that as an employer, you should prepare to receive requests for leave at short notice.

    To avoid any discrimination claims, do your best to accommodate these requests. Prepare in advance for alternative working arrangements, especially if you know that May will be a busy month.

Bonus tips for the Circuit Breaker period in 2020

Singapore’s latest Circuit Breaker (CB) period started on April 7, 2020, in response to COVID-19. Though the CB may seem like an obstacle to your business, they can actually be an opportunity to strengthen relationships with employees. By learning more about their unique circumstances, you’ll naturally discover new ways to support them.

Handling the situation correctly can help you build a more committed team, and boost productivity and team cohesiveness. We’ve got a few bonus tips to help!

  • Show interest in their quality of life. For example, share any great deals you see for halal food. If you stumble upon online bazaars, send the link to any group chats you have (since the usual festive markets are probably shut). Here are some resources and links we’ve found:
  • If your operations permit and current workloads are light, allow Muslim parents to do time-banking or have flexi-hour arrangements. It will be appreciated, as some of them may have to wake at 3am to have the morning meal ready by 5am.
  • Simply speak to your team members on win-win arrangements! It’s an important month in the midst of extraordinary times, after all. Your employees will understand the challenges for your team the most.

Be a fair employer

Part of being a responsible employer in Singapore means respecting cultural norms and religious traditions. Applying leave policy consistently and fairly for all employees will help create a more inclusive, open, and safe working environment and keep productivity high among team members.

As long as you fairly consider leave requests and temporary schedule changes during Ramadan, there’s no reason to be afraid of discrimination claims. Instead, treat this holy month as an opportunity to differentiate yourself as an employer that truly cares about its employees’ wellbeing.

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