Working fast and slow

Tuesday 27 April 2021

A picture of a lantern and the moon

Author: Usman Hayat, CFA

Ramadan is an important month for Muslims around the world. For employees who are fasting, it is useful to have an open dialogue with their companies, says Usman Hayat, CFA

“Are you doing Ramadan?''

This question was posed to me by a colleague at the London office of CFA Institute a few years ago. A number of us who sat close to each other in the office were trying to lose some weight and become fitter. Her observant eyes had probably picked up that I was enjoying some quick success at becoming leaner. “Yes, Ramadan is helping me trim down”, I replied, happy that I could finally shed some pounds that I just couldn’t cut during the rest of the year. “Maybe I should do Ramadan, too,” laughed another colleague, who had overheard us.  

Better than many diet plans, fasting generally means abstinence from eating and drinking. It's a centuries-old tradition observed for both religious and medical reasons. It is also an established form of protest and a routine medical requirement before undergoing a surgery.

The largest faith-driven fasting is undertaken by Muslims in the month of Ramadan, which culminates in the Eid festival. Those fasting are required to abstain from food and drink from pre-dawn to sunset, exert tighter ethical discipline and engage in charity. Going without food and drink for so long day after day may seem daunting. But if you, like this author, have been fasting in Ramadan since early teens, it does not feel very difficult. 

Fasting in Ramadan is meant to be a sacrifice for piety, and it is no excuse for shirking. It is common to observe people fasting and continuing to do all types of work without underperforming, from hard labour to desk-top analysis. A lot depends on willpower, but it helps to be disciplined about one's food and water intake and, no less importantly, sleeping hours. 

The medical benefits of different styles of fasting remain an area of ongoing research, but favorable conclusions in studies published in mainstream journals are not uncommon.

An employer may argue that “no obstacles but no special favours” is a fair policy for employees who choose to fast for any reason. Indeed, it does sound fair. Employers that wish to go further may take some steps where possible, such as the permission I was granted at CFA Institute to leave the office an hour early because of skipping the lunch break during Ramadan. These days, the extensive remote working arrangements due to COVID-19 are likely to facilitate fasting.

Muslims account for a quarter of the global population. Understanding the dynamics of Ramadan is helpful in creating an inclusive workplace, where some colleagues, customers, or visitors may be fasting. The National Health Service (NHS) has published a practical guide on workplace considerations during Ramadan, which can be readily used by different types of employers. It includes tips for both supervisors and those fasting. One helpful tip is to be mindful that fasting may affect different people in different ways. For example, some may become slower or quieter on some days without necessarily realizing it.

With respect to diversity and inclusion at the workplace, the key point regarding Ramadan is that employers and employees should be able to openly discuss fasting so they can address any issue that may arise.

Ramadan is based on the lunar calendar and it shifts about 10 days each year. You can expect to fast in all the weather conditions over the course of your life. In the UK, because of the longer days in the summer, fasts are longer than in the Middle East and South Asia. For example, on April 30, 2021, the length of the fast in Mecca, Islamabad, and London is approximately 14:02, 14:38, and 16:30 hours respectively. On the flip side, fasting during the British winter is much easier; I remember it felt like skipping lunch and having an early supper.

“Does Ramadan present a calendar anomaly with an opportunity to earn alpha?”, a curious investment professional may wonder. There have been a number of research studies on the impact of Ramadan on stock market performance and liquidity in Muslim-majority countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Malaysia, Iran, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. They point to different conclusions, while some studies suggest there are excess returns, others see it as compensation for lower liquidity. 

Ramadan is also a cultural phenomenon with its own humor, often making fun of one’s cravings while fasting. One of my favorite Ramadan jokes: “Please stop sending me emails with a #, it looks just like a waffle”.

A picture of Usman Hayat, CFAUsman Hayat, CFA, is a freelance writer and independent consultant. He is the former CEO of the Auditor Oversight Board, Pakistan and a former Content Director at CFA Institute in London.







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