Two weeks ago, as Cathrin Westerwelle went about her daytime routine of working and setting strategies to develop employees into effective managers in her role at PepsiCo in the U.K., she skipped her usual break to eat and abstained from food from sunrise until sunset. She couldn't even drink water, she was told.
“A lot of my friends were asking me, ‘Why are you doing this? What is the reason behind it? Was it hard? Oh, my God, you’re crazy,’ or, ‘I couldn’t do this,’” Westerwelle, 40, told TODAY from Reading, in England.
Many of her colleagues stopped themselves from staying hydrated and eating too, but it was completely voluntary and part of a diversity initiative with fasting Muslim colleagues during this month of Ramadan.
Westerwelle, who doesn’t identify with any religion, fasted for a day and shared her experience on LinkedIn in a post that garnered over 50,000 reactions.
“In today’s connected era, spreading hate is very easy, but spreading peace is really difficult and must be appreciated,” one LinkedIn user responded.
“It was the first time I took part in the ‘Ramadan challenge,’” Westerwelle said, adding that it “creates a much more inclusive environment where people feel comfortable to be themselves.”
Westerwelle said she grew closer with a Muslim colleague as they fasted together, and that fasting helped her become more attuned to her state of mind and engagement level.
Her company’s employee resource group in the U.K., Ethnicity and Culture, initiated the idea for a “Ramadan challenge” last year and continued it again this year when the learning and development manager joined.
It involves employees volunteering to abstain from food and drink from sunrise until sunset and sharing an iftar, or breaking of the fast. They’re also given the option to give to charity.
Mohammed Faris works with professionals in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Singapore and other parts of the world on faith-based understanding through coaching and wellness training through his company, The Productive Muslim Company. While he wasn’t a part of the initiative at PepsiCo, he’s noticed more people signing up for his team’s services since the pandemic began.
This year in particular, company diversity initiatives are becoming more apparent in supporting colleagues with initiatives like Ramadan and fasting compared to a decade ago, Faris, 36, said from Dallas, Texas.
Westerwelle’s colleague Juber Ahmed, a commercial operations analyst, said he came up with the “Ramadan challenge” idea that included about 20 employees a year ago and grew to dozens more. He and his colleagues have planned initiatives around Yom Kippur, Hindu festivals and events on race and culture.
A separate challenge, “The Fast and the Curious,” took place at Deloitte in the U.K. through the faith-based employee group Deloitte Muslim Network.
“I actually don’t have Muslim friends in my home network, so it’s really nice to have those friends at work and it was really nice to take part in it,” Sarah Humphreys, 45, told TODAY from London.
The Deloitte tax professional said her husband even joined in fasting and that it started conversations with their children who have Muslim classmates.
“I took a few moments of gratitude and reflection to kind of get closer to the spirit of the day. You know, you’re not eating so you do take that time to just appreciate that you can eat normally and all those good things around you that are easy to take for granted,” Humphreys said.
The movements for racial justice since the murder of George Floyd and added pressures from workplace transitions from the "Great Resignation" to remote work created a cultural shift in the workplace centered on workers’ needs, according to Farzana Nayani, a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant in Los Angeles. She works with thousands of employees and is the author of the forthcoming book “The Power of Employee Resource Groups: How People Create Authentic Change.”
“There’s a lot of opportunity in that to right the wrongs that maybe have existed that we haven’t had a chance to address,” Nayani said.
“There’s been a rise in employee resource groups, so employee resource groups have been a vehicle for organizations, for companies and for the individuals themselves to come together and support individuals of different demographics and identities in order to hear them, to really have a place for issues and concerns to arise and for community to be created,” she added.
Ahmed said the “Ramadan challenge” at work helps colleagues that might feel isolated to become more engaged.
“I think it was very unique for the company to do it and for me personally ... it gives everyone a voice within the company,” he said.
Faris said there’s sometimes an unease for employees having to explain their faith at work.
“A lot of Muslims sometimes feel uncomfortable because sometimes their faith requirements might put them at odds, sometimes with working culture, right, taking breaks for prayer, not having lunch breaks ... and not being able to socialize as much because you’re fasting, right,” Faris said. “But when you have a manager who just gets it and knows it and goes out of their way to not just accommodate you but even fast with you, it’s so motivating.”
Nayani also points to a strong sense of belonging that this month of Ramadan fosters, and while there are various reasons why some people observing the month can’t fast, the shift she’s seen in workplaces includes recognition.
“At the same time, we’re in a very polarized state of affairs globally and religious identity is often tied to political identity and political affiliations and so, that has caused the need to really be careful around how we address religious and faith backgrounds,” Nayani said.
“This year, we had a confluence of Ramadan, Easter and Passover, which is a beautiful metaphor for the coming together of faith and religion. At the same time, there’s an unequal observance of that. So, you might have meetings shifted because of Easter or Passover, but perhaps those meetings aren’t shifted due to Ramadan or the times of day that people are breaking fast or whatever the case may be,” Nayani explained.
Like Westerwelle, her PepsiCo colleague Louise Williams, a senior human resources director, doesn’t identify with any religion and chose to fast for a day.
“It’s been really good for networking, and I wouldn’t have met Juber, for example, if I hadn’t been involved in this initiative,” Williams, 41, said from Reading.
“I think it says, look, we’re human, we’re taking time out of our busy jobs, making snacks and beverages, to say, you know what, we recognize that we have differences, we’re embracing that, and we want to walk in each other’s shoes and try to understand and try to be inclusive,” she said.
Forgoing food quickly became a feeling of gratitude as Westerwelle planned to take a bite into her date at sunset before completing the fast.
“Probably the best date I will ever eat,” she shared on LinkedIn.