Last week or so, a few colleagues and I thought it would be a good idea to mark the coming of Ramadan in some way, so we brought suitably calorific goodies into work and sent out a little message to our team about what the month meant to us. We received a response that we, and certainly I was not expecting; many insightful comments and a lot of very thoughtful questions which showed me how people can value the diversity colleagues bring from the, outside in (especially if it is accompanied by a snack or two!). I was then asked to write a blog about Ramadan for work which I thought I would share more widely.
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar begins next week. It is an important time for the Muslim community. At its core, the month is about giving more and consuming less; patience over instant gratification, reflecting rather than reacting and thinking of others over our selves.
Most people associate Ramadan with not eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset. In the UK this works like a charm when Ramadan comes around in winter, slightly less so when it falls over one of the longest days of the year. In the good old days, before sugar became the new poison and bread could be consumed guilt-free, the idea of fasting seemed novel. When I used to explain the concept of fasting to people who hadn’t heard it before I would usually get some surprise tinged with (I like to think) a little awe and respect. Now, the idea of detoxing as becomes so irritatingly fashionable the reactions are different.
Just recently, I was talking about Ramadan to a very health-conscious neighbour, “So what do you eat when you are not fasting”, she asked. I explained that the fast was punctuated by two big meals on either side, a breakfast called suhoor and an enormous dinner called iftaar. What exactly is eaten in these meals is culture specific but traditionally milk, dates and copious amounts of water will feature. “Aah”, she said. “So you mean you can eat carbs…fat…gluten and caffeine?” “Yes, yes and yes”, I said thinking about how much I enjoy the feeling of my sip of caffeine at the end of my fast, the crunch of a greasy samosa and a red velvet cupcake for my iftaar, “it’s the only time I feel I deserve to eat everything” I said laughing. “Interesting”, she continued, clearly disappointed by my lack of self control “I will be doing a complete detox in June for a week. No carbs or fat for me!” My turn to be surprised and more than awed by the thought of that kind of fasting…
Fasting in this month though is not only about not physical abstinence. Equally important is controlling behaviour- no lying, cheating and certainly, as my teachers liked to remind me in my teenage years growing up in Pakistan, you are absolutely not allowed to get the grumps. In a moment of what I have come to regard as pure insanity, I shared this with my then 7 year old son and 4 year old daughter last Ramadan. “So you mean you are not allowed to get angry?”, they asked innocently, and then with a determination known only to little people proceeded to test this over the next 29 days. “Now now mum, we have been using your phone to take 200 pictures of the left dining chair leg but you can’t get angry. Remember. It’s not allowed” etc etc. I spent that Ramadan hopping around like like Master Shifu from Kung Fu Panda trying to find inner peace but not quite getting there.
Not all Muslims fast and it is certainly not advised for the very young, the very old, the sick or those bringing new life into the world. My husband doesn’t fast and for this he is required to give charity equivalent to feeding three square meals a day. In actual fact, he pays much more. You see, as I am fasting, and he isn’t, he becomes the go-to parent in the evening by default. Children homework duties. Nightmare duties. Lego-stuck-in nose-emergencies. Forgot-school fair-bake- cupcake-last-minutes duties, all fall to him. It’s brilliant. By the end of the month I am spiritually and physically refreshed while he poor him, looks completely exhausted…
That is one reason I love this month. There are several other (less calculating) reasons. The three top ones for me would be:
- It forces me to stop, stop running from work task lists to home ones and pause and reflect on life and living.
- It prompts me to think about lives less fortunate than mine and imagine what it must feel like to be endlessly hungry and not know when and where my next meal may come from.
- It makes me practice patience. In our current culture of instant access to gratification, it is so educational to experience waiting.
Is fasting difficult at work? To be very honest, yes. There are the embarrassing tummy rumbles at important meetings. There is the lack of caffeine to prop you up through the day. Fasting during the summer months are very long and I find that although our bodies are remarkably adaptable when it comes to food and drink, they are less forgiving when it comes to lack of sleep. And given the length of the day there is definitely interrupted sleep especially during the last ten nights of the month which many Muslims may spend in additional prayers. At these times, managers who support flexible working and colleagues who don’t put in meetings late in the day in diaries become extremely valued.
It’s not all bad though and there are certainly benefits for work as well.
- I find I really value coming into work, the busier the better, as the day dissolves quickly when you have a lot to do. Weekends are killers.
- At lunch, I go for a walk. This I think does more for more productivity than a sandwich slumped over my laptop
- I find I am ruthlessly pragmatic with myself about what I can do during the work day and therefore I plan and set expectations more effectively. I also get remarkably good at prioritising.
- Most importantly for me, I become good at listening to others (especially at the end of the day when my energy levels are low!). This at all times is very useful.
Those are things that I practice this month that improve the way I work. There are many many other lessons on life and living. Like any L& D activity though the challenge is always making that learning stick.