BY PROF DR HALIMU SHAURI
(Dean; School of Humanities and Social Sciences; Pwani University)
It is now clear that in new situations such as this of COVID-19, old concepts find new meaning or new concepts are added to professions in a bid to ensure successful response.
From the presidential address yesterday there was clear use of the concept Frontline Staff. Because this concept was not defined and operationalized for common understanding in the fight against COVID-19, it is deemed to bring confusion to those who are supposed to use it.
Concepts are symbols and in the Sociological theory of symbolic interactionism, symbols have meaning.
If not well defined or operationalised to portray standard meaning and understanding, there deemed to be confusion.
Without understanding there is failure in communication, which leads to weaknesses in implementation.
Because we want to support the president’s relentless efforts to fight COVID-19, we make our small contribution in helping define or operationalise to the concept and provide an easy road-map of implementation of the presidential directive to strengthen the welfare of the front-line Staff in the fight against Corona.
The President heeded to the call from many stakeholders and lessons and best practices in other countries such as our own Ghana in the way they have motivated their Frontline Staff. Hey! You are wondering! What is Frontline Staff and who are they?
I can see you becoming agitated that I have said without a clear standard definition of the concept there may be chaos in its use by stakeholders and yet am continuing without the justice of defining and operationalising it.
Thanks for your agitation as I will now go straight to try and define and operationalise the concept Frontline Staff.
This (Frontline Staff) as a concept is not new. The concept has dominated discussions in May professional fields, with its everyday use in the service sector, especially business and healthy care.
However, its use must be adapted or operationalised for optimal results. Pragmatically, the concept Frontline Staff refers to employees who directly interact with customers.
Interaction in the definition, a sociological concept itself, needs to be understood in the context of the modes of engagement: Cooperation, Competition, Social Exchange, Conflict and Accommodation.
Frontline Staff, therefore, is typically contrasted with back office employees who may never meet the customers at all and their role is to support the Frontline Staff.
In the banking industry, for example, where I worked briefly after graduation, the receptionist, tellers, personal bankers and relationship managers are the ones who handle clients, hence the Frontline Staff.
However, behind them there is a strong workforce that doesn’t come into contact with customers but their service is key for satisfactory customer service.
This is akin to the adage, for every successful man, Frontline Staff, there is a woman, back office staff, behind him.
More precisely, in the service industry Frontline Staff are the people who answer the phone or email, help clients in person in spaces like shops, banks and hospitals.
How is the discussion of Frontline Staff key to the success of the fight against COVID-19? You are asking!
Because in the service industry they are the first port of call for many clients, they have a strong impact on user experience and influence the public’s perception of the brand they represent.
In the healthcare system, they are even more important because they are, apart from the benefit to the system, the greatest risk takers in crisis situations such as the current one of COVID-19.
Traditionally, however, in Sociology of Health and even in Medical Sociology, my specialty, Frontline health workers are therefore those directly providing services where they are most needed, especially in remote and rural areas…
They are the first and often the only link to health care for millions of people, are relatively inexpensive to train and support, and are capable of providing many life-saving interventions.
Armed with this traditional definition of a healthy worker Frontline Staff you can now see the need to have a common shared meaning of the concept in the context of COVID-19 for use by stakeholders.
The million dollar question which arises here is, however, who between the Frontline and allow me to create a new concept too, “Backline Staff” is more important and should be motivated?
In the field of soccer or football, who between the goalkeeper, defender, centre half, winger or the “Frontline Player” who scores the goal deserves the motivation? You will say the scorer! I know because you are used to this unfair system!
What about in the Hotel or Hospitality Industry, between the cook who makes the sumptuous meal and the waiter who just serves the meal to the client get the tip or motivation? Your answer is as good as mine!
My unsolicited advise therefore to President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, is that let’s desist from categorizing the healthcare staff into Frontline and “Backline” Staff and start having differential motivation.
This! If it happens, from my professional point of view, is suicidal amidst the crisis of COVID-19 magnitude before us.
Saying who is important in attending to the COVID-19 patients and not focusing on the whole picture is a defeatist Human Resource Motivational Approach (HRMA).
From the contact tracers, ambulance drivers, receptionists, laboratory staff, doctors, pharmacists, nurses, doctors and more serious cleaners are all Frontline Staff in a successful COVID-19 mitigation.
Let’s not divide the health care workers into categories, Frontline or “Backline” they are a solid team.
Divided they fall and united they win COVID-19. Let’s not use motivation segregatively it’s not the practical thing to do now. Which is the practical thing then?
I hear you saying tell us. We must learn how to engage health care staff during times of crisis such as now of corona virus.
There are three steps that can be taken for a start towards better engagement, drive to team performance and satisfying the needs of our health care staff, the formidable team, not Frontline Staff.
These simple steps are establishing a clear health care team vision, like Zero Corona case by some target time frame, provide feedback and recognition which need not necessarily be monetary and building a culture of transparency and accountability in the handling of all COVID-19 issues.