The COVID-19 pandemic has added a host of new challenges for South African frontline workers, but those arguably hardest hit are female employees within essential industries, who had to still physically show up for their jobs – throughout all lockdown levels – while juggling the lion’s share of unpaid domestic work at home.

This is according to Sinazo Sibisi – the Managing Director for Africa, Canada and Australia for Wyzetalk, leading global employee experience company – who says that the pandemic has highlighted the need to give more support to female employees working on the frontline.

“COVID-19 has brought to the fore the depth and impact of systemic, structural inequalities,” Sibisi says. “The intersection of gender, race and class has always meant that women are far more likely to be in frontline jobs, especially women of colour. As a result they are far more likely to live in crowded and poor living conditions, as well as have limited access to a healthy diet and adequate healthcare. Hence, as a significant percentage of frontline workers, women are not only the ones most exposed to the pandemic, but they are also the ones most vulnerable to getting sick without being able to access the treatment they need.”

Furthermore, according to Sibisi, “the fact that we still live in a patriarchal society means that women still typically bear more domestic responsibilities than their male counterparts. During a pandemic, this workload increases as women now also have to be at the forefront of looking after sick loved ones or ageing parents at risk.”

In this sense, Sibisi notes the additional challenges that mothers, in particular, have faced as frontline workers. “Female frontline workers that are mothers typically rely on a strong support and institutional system to look after their children whilst they are at work. However, key elements of this system – crèches and schools, as well as non-family babysitters – were taken away under stringent lockdown conditions, forcing these essential workers to either make alternative plans for their children or stay home with them and miss work.

“Of course, another challenge specific to the South African context is the impact of living in a society with very high levels of gender-based violence (GBV) on female frontline workers. The sad reality for many of these women is that safety threats are prevalent whether they are at home, travelling to and from work, in the workplace or outside at leisure,” she adds.

Sibisi says that companies and government organisations could play a role in supporting their female frontline workforce by providing more organisational support. “For starters, employers could create a more supportive environment in the workplace by understanding the experiences of their employees within and outside the workplace, and how that impacts on their personal growth and ability to fully contribute to the business.”This would involve connecting with all employees simultaneously through digital, mobile-first employee experience solutions, particularly for organisations with a large, dispersed workforce. “Employers can then use these digital platforms to provide opportunities for always-on feedback, as well as conduct pulse surveys in the different stages of the employee life-cycle – from recruitment, onboarding, development, retention to exit – in order to understand how different employees experience the workplace.

“Companies can then use the feedback received from employees throughout the employee life-cycle to develop programmes to improve the experience of female frontline workers” she adds.

In addition, within the context of the pandemic, Sibisi suggests that companies could also implement the following programmes targeted at female frontline workers:

  • Information and communications campaigns centred on women’s health and wellness (including dealing with destructive relationships and GBV);
  • Reward and recognition programmes that include non-financial rewards such as access to grocery vouchers, so that female frontline workers can supplement their diets with quality food and access important hygiene products for their families, or medical vouchers so they can get better access to healthcare (for those employers who don’t have nurses on site);
  • Providing access to childcare within the workplace, flexible working hours and leave policies that not only recognise women’s caregiving role but also the greater role men should be taking in caregiving responsibilities.

While such approaches would not address underlying systemic, structural inequality, Sibisi believes that programmes of this nature will, in the short-term, help to improve the work lives of female employees whilst we work towards achieving a greater shift in gender relations and social equity in the long-term.

This article was published on Business Brief.