AIDS Awareness Month presents an opportunity to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS, bust some of the myths, and consider how employers can best support those living and working with HIV.

The Facts

HIV and AIDS are not one and the same thing. HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) affects an estimated 90,000 people living in the UK. It infects and destroys the immune system, resulting in reduced protection and immunity from diseases. AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) occurs when part of the immune system stops functioning properly as a result of infection by HIV. AIDS can only develop in someone who is infected with HIV.

Thanks to medical advancement, HIV can now be treated very effectively. Many people living with the condition do so with little or no impact on their day-to-day lives, and can look forward to a normal life span. However, if someone with HIV is not following the necessary treatment, their immune system will weaken and they will become unable to fight off certain infections and diseases (such as pneumonia and cancer), known as ‘AIDS defining illnesses’. It is these diseases (rather than the AIDS condition itself) that can prove fatal.

Although awareness and understanding of HIV and AIDS has radically improved since the 1980s, it is important to allay any myths and assumptions about their transmission. Most crucially, HIV presents no risk in the normal course of everyday social and work life. Whilst it can be transmitted between people, it is not airborne, which reduces this risk significantly, and nor can it be passed on from person to person via saliva. Infected blood, blood products, vaginal fluids or semen entering the bloodstream can spread the virus. Prevention campaigns and messages consequently focus heavily on promoting safe sex, and on encouraging the ‘safe’ use of hypodermic needles. HIV and AIDS conditions have become associated with (but are not restricted to) the gay community and those involved in recreational drug abuse, however it is a condition that can affect a widespread demographic.

Living and Working with HIV

It is a common misconception that living with HIV means living with constant or frequent illness, resulting in time off work and an inability to integrate fully on a social or professional level. Yet, this is the exception, not the rule. A person can live a perfectly healthy life, yet be infected with HIV. Indeed, some people are not even aware that they are HIV positive (diagnosis requires testing).

In 2009, research carried out by the NAT (National AIDS Trust) and City University surveyed 1,800 HIV positive gay men in employment across a variety of sectors. Over half of them said that HIV had no impact on their working lives. The majority had taken no time off within the preceding year for HIV related illness, and there was no significant difference between HIV positive respondents and their HIV negative peers in terms of sickness absence for non-HIV related illness.

Employing people with HIV should not be seen any differently to employing people with any other underlying medical condition. There may be the occasional need for outpatient appointments, possibly a few side effects for the individual to handle, and maybe the need for a degree of flexibility around working hours (in order to accommodate the aforementioned). However, making arrangements and adjustments to ensure that HIV positive workers are fully supported is at the most basic level a legal requirement (under the Equality Act 2010), and, more to the point, it is a moral obligation. Above all, most of the required adjustments are straightforward and cheap to implement, leaving little or no impact on the bottom line.

For those diagnosed with HIV, a commonly cited concern is confidentiality. The decision on whether to disclose their HIV status is made all the more complex by the stigmas so often attached to the condition. NAT’s research paper in 2009 showed that almost 40% of respondents had not disclosed their condition at work. For some this may simply be due to the lack of need, particularly if the condition had little or no impact on their working lives. However in more than half of these cases, it was down to concerns over confidentiality. This sends a clear message to employers regarding the importance of communicating a supportive and sensitive stance to the workforce regarding how HIV is managed and supported in the workplace, so that those affected can confidently speak out and benefit from the support they are entitled to.

Advice for Employers

So what actions should employers be taking in order to ensure that employees living with HIV can adopt a fully integrated and inclusive work life, alongside their condition? We take a look below at some of the key considerations.

  • Training is key, especially for managers. Ensure that your whole team is clear on your stance on equal opportunities, and what this means in relation to managing HIV in the workplace. Managers may also require specific training in handling discussions with employees wishing to disclose their HIV diagnosis or status at work.
  • Policies should be reviewed closely. Does your equal opportunities policy include specific reference to HIV? Have you a documented and robust set of policies around harassment, grievance and victimisation? Employees who feel that they have been treated detrimentally in any way because of their condition need to know that there is a clear procedure for reporting, and how this will be followed up. And be mindful to amend or remove any blanket policies that may indirectly discriminate against HIV positive employees (such as imposing an unnecessary requirement to travel overseas to countries which may have immigration restrictions on HIV positive entrants).
  • Discrimination takes more forms than you might expect. Aside from the obvious direct and indirect discrimination, employers should also take care to stamp out any signs of associative discrimination (such as treating someone unfairly because their partner has HIV) or perceptive discrimination (assuming that someone has HIV just because of their sexual orientation or their ethnic origin).
  • Raise awareness and show support. HIV is shrouded in myth and misunderstanding, and many of the stigmas associated with it are incorrect and stem from a lack of knowledge and understanding, often resulting in the above types of discriminatory behaviour. As an employer you can help to deliver the facts and bust some of the myths about HIV and AIDS. Events such as World Aids Day (1st December) present great opportunities to demonstrate your support and raise awareness of the facts behind the condition.
  • Compliance with the Data Protection Act 1998 requires that all data of a personal or sensitive nature is kept confidential, properly secure, and should not be passed on without the explicit written consent of the individual concerned. Sharing information regarding an employee’s HIV diagnosis or condition should be strictly on a ‘need to know’ basis. And that will extend to only the limited few involved in making reasonable adjustments and managing the workplace setting to provide the necessary support.
  • Make reasonable adjustments. HIV falls under the Equality Act 2010, and is considered a disability from the point of diagnosis. Making reasonable adjustments in the workplace will amount to different things for different individuals – every case will be unique. Close consultation with the individual concerned will help to ensure that you have a full and clear understanding of how the side effects (such as fatigue and nausea, in some cases) are impacting them, when the trigger points are likely to arise (e.g. a change of medication), and what, if anything, needs to be done to lend support in the workplace (such as working from home, flexible hours or more frequent rest breaks).
  • Record time off appropriately. It is likely that there will be occasional planned absences for medical appointments, and, as with all underlying medical conditions, occasional unplanned sickness. Any such time away from work should be recorded as disability leave, not sickness absence.
  • Be human! Consider how you would want to be treated if the shoe were on the other foot. Just like with any on going condition or illness, a little support can go a long way. In the words of Charlie Sheen ‘HIV can be three difficult letters to swallow’, but with the right support, there is no reason they need to have any detrimental impact on anyone’s career.

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