As the holy month of Ramadan approaches we consider the associated practical considerations for employers of Muslim employees, including dealing with holiday requests and possible health and safety issues.

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan is the annual four week period during which Muslims fast from dawn until dusk, pray and give to charity. Its observance is a fundamental part of the Islamic faith.

Ramadan lasts for a lunar month and this year is anticipated to begin on 6 June. The start date can vary slightly depending upon regional customs and when the new moon is first sighted.

The holy month culminates with the festival of Eid al-Fitr.

Not all Muslims will fast throughout Ramadan - children, the elderly, the ill, and pregnant or breastfeeding women are exempt.

Effects of fasting

During Ramadan energy levels, concentration and productivity of Muslim employees who are fasting are likely to be affected, particularly towards the end of the day, as employees will have consumed no food or water since dawn.

Managers should be made aware of this possibility, not only from a health and safety perspective to ensure that affected employees stay safe but also in relation to management of performance. Unduly penalising or criticising an employee who suffers as a result of fasting, could lead to complaints of religious discrimination or even constructive dismissal.

Flexible working arrangements?

Employers could consider flexible working arrangements for Muslim employees during Ramadan. Such arrangements need not be onerous - for example, simply offering to arrange for lengthy or complex meetings or difficult tasks to be scheduled in the morning when the energy levels of employees observing Ramadan may be higher. Alternatively, employers could consider accommodating flexible hours or remote working arrangements for a limited period.

Rest breaks

During Ramadan there may also be an increased number of requests from Muslim employees to take breaks during the working day to rest or to pray (as particular importance is placed on prayer during Ramadan).

Whilst the requirement under the Working Time Regulations 1998 (in most circumstances) is to only grant one 20 minute rest break if the working day is more than six hours, employers will need to approach requests for additional rest and prayer breaks sensitively. Ultimately, business requirements will determine how much latitude an employer can grant but employers should think creatively about accommodating requests where at all possible.

Employers may wish to consider setting aside a dedicated prayer room or area for employees to use, which will reduce the amount of travelling time the employee needs to attend to prayers. Additionally, if employers have concerns around a large number of employees being away from the workplace at any one time, employers could also consider introducing a rota for taking prayer breaks during Ramadan.

Annual leave

While the majority of Christian religious holidays are provided for as bank or public holidays in the UK there is no equivalent provision for non-Christian days. It is likely that there will be high demand for annual leave from Muslim employees to celebrate Eid al-Fitr and the question of whether to authorise such requests should be dealt with in accordance with an employer's usual procedure. 
However, where there are a large number of Muslim employees who want to take the same time off it may not be possible to accommodate everyone due to the needs of the business.

Employers should act reasonably in dealing with holiday requests and establish a fair system for granting leave that meets the needs of the business but does not put employees of any particular religion or belief (or those who do not hold any religious beliefs) at a disadvantage. What is reasonable will depend on the size of the employer, its resources and the number of employees requesting leave at the same time.

The Working Time Regulations 1998 allow an employer to give its workers notice requiring them to take annual leave on a certain date. If the numbers of requests for leave on the same day are really significant an employer may wish to consider closing down altogether on that date and requiring everyone in the business to take that day as holiday.

Where requests are made that are linked to time off for Ramadan/Eid al-Fitr, employers need to ensure that full consideration is given to the practicability of accommodating the request and that it is not dismissed out of hand simply because it is a busy period or others already have holiday booked.

If, after consideration, an employer needs to refuse a request on genuine business grounds it should handle this sensitively and seek to reach a compromise with the individual where possible, for example, by putting the employee to the top of the queue for next year.

Raising awareness

Having an understanding of the religious sensitivities around Ramadan is paramount to ensure a harmonious work environment. As employers can be vicariously liable for the discriminatory acts of their employees it will be in an employer's best interest to ensure that all employees are informed about what is involved for employees observing this holy period and the potential impact of Ramadan on the workplace.