Supporting locked down employees during Ramadan

Hussain Kayani explains what employers can do to best support employees observing Ramadan while social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic

With the UK still under lockdown, this year’s Ramadan is shaping up to be a more muted affair. However, despite Mosques remaining closed and social aspects of the celebrations suspended, the most sacred month of the Islamic calendar will still be observed by millions of Muslims.

Ramadan began on either 24 or 25 April, depending upon which school of thought Muslims follow, and lasts for approximately 30 days, culminating in the celebration of Eid Ul-Fitr. During this period, Muslims are obligated to fast from sunrise to sunset and will also engage in prayer, reflection and giving to charity. If you have Muslim employees, you may be wondering how this might affect their ability to undertake their role and how best to accommodate them in the coming weeks. 

If you’re not all that familiar with Ramadan customs, you may be anxious about getting it wrong. However, the basic legal principle is simple: you must make sure employees are not treated less favourably based on their religion or belief.

For example, it would be appropriate to consider whether you can be flexible with regards to employees’ working hours, rest times and duties. You may have already reverted to remote working in light of the pandemic; however, if your workplace remains open, it may be sensible to allow Muslim employees to work from home temporarily. While there is currently no evidence to suggest that fasting increases the risk of contracting Covid-19, allowing employees to work from home avoids them commuting to and from the workplace and allows them to use their breaks to engage in extra worship, which is very common during Ramadan.  

If home working is not an option, consider allocating a room for employees to pray in. Remember, enforcing a ‘no prayer in the workplace’ rule may constitute indirect discrimination, as it would disproportionately affect Muslim employees compared to those of other religions who would not normally be required to pray at set times throughout the day.

Of course, fasting is likely to lead to fatigue, so allowing more rest breaks, modifying the employee’s duties or allowing them to work through lunch may be beneficial to both parties. Decreased energy may also affect employees’ performance or productivity, and in this scenario, employers should explore what can be done to help the employee stay focused. Penalising or disciplining an employee for this reason may leave you exposed to discrimination claims, so it’s best to work with the employee to find solutions. This might include scheduling meetings and other essential or demanding tasks at the start of their shift when they have the most energy.

It may be that employees are aware of their own limitations while fasting and therefore choose to request time off so that this doesn’t interfere with work. Similarly, despite current lockdown measures, Muslim employees may also wish to spend Eid with their loved ones at home or may be hopeful that Mosques might reopen. There is no automatic right to time off in this context and requests should be handled in line with your annual leave policy. However, you should try to be as reasonable, fair and accommodating as possible, and should have clear business reasons for refusing an employee’s request.

Above all, foster a culture of respect. It is worth circulating a company-wide email or putting up a notice in communal areas to make everyone aware of Ramadan and remind them of your policy on bullying and harassment. Managers should lead the way in making sure employees are sensitive to people’s religious beliefs, as inappropriate comments or 'banter' may leave you exposed to harassment claims.

Fortunately, with a little diplomacy and common sense, Ramadan can be a real opportunity to demonstrate great management and nurture the relationship of mutual trust and respect between you and your team.

Hussain Kayani is a principal employment law advisor and solicitor at Ellis Whittam