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How can we support our teammates who observe Ramadan?

Written By
Steve Howe
Bahram Ehsas | Head of Growth at Homerun

At the time of this article’s publication, millions of people around the world are observing Ramadan—the Islamic calendar month of fasting, prayer, and communal reflection. 

For non-Muslims, it’s easy to fall into expecting the same performance from our Muslim colleagues 12 months a year. But it can be challenging to meet those expectations. Imagine, for example, how productive your mornings would be without that daily hit of caffeine. Or how energetic your afternoons would feel without that post-lunch sugar spike.

Bahram Ehsas doesn’t have to imagine—he’s observed Ramadan for the past 16 years. With experience as a growth specialist at several startups—most recently at Homerun—he knows what it’s like to navigate working while fasting. 

We sat down with Bahram to talk about the unique ways in which managers have helped him during Ramadan, times when colleagues have unknowingly been a bit insensitive, and what it’s like to do a whole day of meetings without drinking water.

How do you observe Ramadan? 

Since Ramadan started I've been fasting every day from 5am to around 7:50pm. I wake up around 4am, have something to eat, try my best to get a prayer in, then go back to bed. 

At 4am I eat porridge, dates, nuts—a very light breakfast, because you don’t want to upset your stomach. Actually, for the last few mornings I haven’t eaten anything. Just water. If I start my metabolism with too much food and go straight back to bed, it’ll mess with my system. 

I don’t drink water while I’m fasting—you can’t ingest anything. Right now I've got a cough, and I can't even go drink water. If you’re on medication or going through your menstrual cycle, you shouldn’t be fasting. The same goes if you’ve had an operation, if you have diabetes, if you're pregnant… you basically have to be a healthy, sound person so it doesn’t have a detrimental effect on your overall health. 

Has the way you approach it changed as you've gotten older and started working? 

There's a contrast in how I fasted when I was younger, versus how I do it now. I’m more conscious about the whole thing. For example, when I was younger I couldn’t wait to stuff my face when I broke fast. As you grow up, you understand the bigger meaning behind Ramadan. 

“I've been fasting for 16 years. And I’d never change that for a western perspective of what deserves a pay rise: constant high performance, every month of the year.”

<quote-author>Bahram Ehsas<quote-author><quote-company>Head of Growth at Homerun<quote-company>

It’s not about starving yourself all day, then stuffing your face at night. It's really a spiritual moment. This whole month, you’re being more conscious about your consumption, about the things you think, say, and do. I now try to embody that as much as I can. And I want to emphasise the word “try”—I’m no saint. 

When I break fast, I try to have a normal meal. For the last few days I had salad every evening—I wanted something that was more health-conscious, so I'm not just eating crap. Past Ramadans, when I was younger, I was so full every night because I'd stuffed myself. 

How does Ramadan impact you at work? 

I generally just get a foggy brain during the day. I'm so used to stimulants like sugar and coffee, that when I cut them out I just can't focus properly for the first two or three weeks. 

Through the morning until 1pm, I’m good—I've still got energy from yesterday's food. After 1pm, I take a dive. And at that point I don't really want to talk to anyone. I get a little bit moody, and it's not as easy to focus on work, or during meetings.

Once I eat at 7:50pm, I’m back up again. If I didn’t finish something during the day, I start working on it at night. On Wednesday I worked until 3am because I had loads of stuff to finish. I’d love to be able to rest, relax. But sometimes you just need to get stuff done.

What people don’t realise is that, if from 12pm to 5pm I can’t do any work, I also can’t do anything else. I can’t exercise, I can’t do most things. So I’d much rather do things to relax in the evening, rather than work. Sometimes it’s possible. Yesterday, for example, I sat down for two hours and read the Quran because I’d done all my work the day before. 

How does your company support you during Ramadan? 

Basically, by remaining curious and enquiring when that curiosity is sparked. My current company, Homerun, have been amazingly good at that. If they don’t understand something, they ask questions. 

The more you know about someone, the more you start to understand them. For example, not drinking water is a given for me and for all Muslims—but others might not know that. Once you know, you can act: “that guy’s going to be thirsty, so I’m not going to throw him into loads of meetings during the day.” 

The CEO dropped me a message recently and said: “Look, even though you’re not eating lunch, make sure to take breaks. I know you’re gonna end up working through the entire day without realising.” It’s nice, you feel like people care. Those little moments make the biggest difference.

Some companies like to say “we’re a family”, or “we have a culture of caring”—but then overlook the importance of Ramadan. 

Have people at work ever been insensitive about it? 

I don't think anyone I've ever worked with has been Islamophobic or anti-Ramadan, in terms of me practising what I want. But I have been impacted unknowingly. 

Like in a previous job, I was told that the founder didn’t want to approve my pay rise because my performance had dipped in the summer. That hurt. I didn’t think: “Oh, this guy hates Muslims.” Of course that wasn’t the case. But he could have asked me why I dipped, and I could have told him it’s because I was fasting. 

You’d never say: “I can't believe women get pregnant and I have to pay them for x amount of months.” We just have to be patient. That’s the attitude that really helps us move forward. When I’m back, I’ll return that favour of care and patience tenfold.

“Some companies like to say “we’re a family”, or “we have a culture of caring”—but then overlook the importance of Ramadan.”

<quote-author>Bahram Ehsas<quote-author><quote-company>Head of Growth at Homerun<quote-company>

But I just have to accept that some things are out of my control. I've been fasting for 16 years. And I’d never change that for a western perspective of what deserves a pay rise—constant high performance every month of the year, including Ramadan and whatever else. In Afghanistan, a manager would never say you had a dip in the summer, because the entire company would have a dip in the summer!

What can managers do to help?

My current manager knows me well, and knows exactly what happens to me during Ramadan. We even joke about needing to get work finished before Ramadan starts. 

Not everyone who fasts is good at telling people about it. Sometimes it feels like other people will think you’re creating an excuse, or that you’re trying to get away with not working as hard. You think to yourself: “It’s self-inflicted, so how can anyone sympathise?” I don’t want to tell people, because I don't know if they would understand or even care.

So it’s nice when the manager—who’s a third party—advocates for you, because they have no need to feel embarrassed. For them it’s easy, and for you it feels like they’ve got your back.

My manager has been able to tell the leadership team: “This is Bahram right now. Understand that he's not suddenly dropped off the cliff because he wants to, it’s because he's fasting.” She has this patience, this understanding, that Ramadan doesn’t define me as a whole. 

How does Ramadan impact your mental health?

Let’s say you take a random week in the year, and you decide to meditate that week and be really introspective. You start caring more, being more conscious. But then you go out into the world, and your friends don’t have the same mindset. You notice it, and maybe it annoys you a little bit. 

Ramadan is a collective moment—everyone is trying to be more spiritual, more mindful, more caring, and more giving. Your friends are more switched-on, more conscious about how they speak to you. You feel this really nice sense of community—people around you are on the same wavelength. It brings you closer to your family, and you feel much happier.  

“Not everyone who fasts is good at telling people about it. So it’s nice when your manager advocates for you, because they have no need to feel embarrassed. For them, it’s easy.”

<quote-author>Bahram Ehsas<quote-author><quote-company>Head of Growth at Homerun<quote-company>

On the negative side, there’s a feeling of anxiety during the day because you don’t work as well. At my previous company, I had loads of anxiety because of that. That one month might be the thing that people remember you by, and now you’re defined by that. But with a foggy brain—no matter how hard you try—no amount of anxiety can push you to do more work. 

But Ramadan is a month of struggle. It’s meant to reconnect you with the world, with the struggles of life. It’s just another test. 

Is there anything individual teammates can do to support? 

I’m not telling anyone to do this, but I have friends who’ve given up one thing they love for the entire month of Ramadan. It’s a nice way of showing me that they’re conscious of what I’m going through. 

If it were me, I’d drop someone a message saying “Ramadan Mubarak”, or “Happy Eid” at the end of Ramadan.

You have to remember that Muslims often drop messages saying “Merry Christmas” or “Happy New Year”—even though it’s not our new year, it’s not our Christmas. When it comes to Eid, we sometimes feel like our non-Muslim friends don’t even think about researching it and saying: “You know what, let me find out what this guy gets up to.” 

If you’re working with that person every single day, be a bit more interested. It does way more good than harm.

Oliva therapist photograph

by Oliva therapist