Khadija Waseem loves tea and coffee, so when she told colleagues she was savouring her last cup ahead of the start of Ramadan’s fasting period last week, they were quick to tease her.
“Everybody was joking, ‘Please, you’ve been drinking this in every meeting and we’ve had back-to-back meetings,”’ said the Toronto-based strategy consultant at Monitor Deloitte.
But the moment turned “very magical” when a colleague, who Waseem said “did not fit the identity of what we think Muslims look like,” excitedly shared that they were marking Ramadan too and had given up coffee more than a week ago.
The encounter was a reminder of the camaraderie that can develop in an inclusive office, but Waseem and others know that feeling and the supportive atmosphere enabling such conversations is still lacking in many workplaces.
Although Islam was Canada’s second most practised religion in 2021 with 1.8 million Muslims in the country, many who practice the faith find they still face challenges in the workplace.
For some, there’s a lack of accommodation, support and mindfulness during Ramadan, one of the holiest months in the Islamic calendar, when those fasting do not eat or drink anything between dawn and sunset.
Others face difficulties when stepping away for prayers five times a day, a cornerstone of the religion.
“Islamophobia, anti-Islamism and just sort of anti-Muslim sentiments generally just seem to be somewhat left out of the broader diversity, equity (and) inclusion conversation within many workplaces,” said Sarah Saska, co-founder and chief executive of consultancy Feminuity.
She thinks companies are not making religious issues as much of a priority as gender because businesses and governments operate around Christian-centric calendars. That means staff have time off for Christmas and Easter,but not Ramadan or other religious holidays.
“Organizations tend to plan for something like Christmas six, five, four months in advance, but we’ve certainly noticed a number of organizations asking us just this week, ‘What can we do (for Ramadan)?”’ Saska said.
Ramadan and other holidays not on the Christian calendar aren’t thought of as far in advance in part because of the lack of diversity within executive ranks.
“Even with the boards that I sit on, a lot of folks have never interacted with someone who wears a hijab, let alone someone who is going to be fasting for the whole month of Ramadan,” said Waseem.
“If those voices are absent, then no one’s going to remember to have that conversation until it’s a few weeks or a week away.”
The workplace accommodations Muslims need vary based on how individuals practice Islam and treat fasting, said Waqqas Shafique, director of financial sustainability and fundraising at the Muslim Association of Canada.
However, flexibility and understanding are key for most.
“The vast majority are usually a little tired in the morning because the nights are a little longer or they might use their lunch hour to find a quiet space to take some rest,” he said.
However, remote and hybrid working arrangements spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic along with religious protections in the Canadian Human Rights Act have made it easier for Muslims and employers to “find the happy medium.”
“We haven’t heard many complaints,” Shafique said.
He, Waseem and Saska agree that companies considering how to best support workers of every faith should begin by educating themselves on the demographics of their workforce and how they practice religion.
Saska encourages businesses to then take what they’ve learned and apply it to all their policies, so efforts to support their workforce go beyond a vague mission statement about diversity in general.
One “really quick and obvious” way companies can support workers is by offering more flexibility around team meetings, working hours and deadlines, she said.
Multi-faith rooms are also important, said Waseem.
“I can go down to my (employer’s) prayer room, pray for about five, six minutes and then be able to return to my regularly programmed scheduling,” she said.
Offering space for religious rituals was a priority when Intuit recently moved from a Mississauga, Ont. office with a “makeshift” prayer room that “wasn’t terribly nice” in its former office, said David Marquis, vice-president and Canada country manager.
At its new downtown office in the sleek Well building, the financial software company’s 19th floor prayer spaces are a focal point. In addition to sprawling views, there are washing stations, separate areas for men and women and a supply of prayer mats.
Members of the Intuit Muslim Awareness Network, one of 14 employee-led groups, were “so touched,” when they first visited the space.
“One of them told me that they cried … because it was just so clear the thoughtfulness that had gone into it,” Marquis said.
Aside from prayer rooms, Intuit hosts a month of Ramadan-centric activities meant to teach workers about Islamic rituals and how to be mindful of practising colleagues.
The highlight is a global day of fasting, where staff of all faiths join Muslim colleagues in going without food or water.
Participating was “a real eye-opener” for Marquis, who encourages other businesses to engage with staff about how to accommodate all religions.
“If there’s visible support from the top down and … employees are engaged, leadership shows support, your culture benefits enormously.”