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Interview with Brigstowe: creating a ‘safe space’ for employees living with HIV

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Despite growing awareness of HIV in society as a whole, stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV persists in the workplace. Aled Osborne, Community Engagement Manager for HIV support organisation Brigstowe, explains how businesses can combat this and foster greater inclusion for those living with HIV.

16th Jun 2021
Editor TrainingZone
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Aled OsborneThe past year has been an anxious time for all employees, but for those living with HIV it has been exacerbated by health concerns and the fact that they may have been forced to disclose their status. Aled Osborne, Community Engagement Manager at Brigstowe, understands better than most the challenges this can pose – both for the employee and the organisation.

The first step is to ensure all staff are provided with diversity and equality training, which includes information on HIV and the importance of confidentiality at work.

Brigstowe is a Bristol based charity that has been providing support since 1994 to people living with or affected by HIV and other long-term health conditions. In this interview, Aled describes the challenges faced by employees living with HIV in the workplace and how HR and L&D professionals can help to end discrimination and promote a more inclusive environment.

How prevalent is HIV in the UK today and are certain communities still disproportionately impacted by the disease?

Around 105,200 people in the UK are living with HIV. Certain areas like inner cities (Bristol, Manchester, London and Brighton, for example) have a higher prevalence than others. One in 16 people living with HIV in the UK do not know they are living with HIV.

Anyone can acquire HIV but people from some groups or parts of the world are more likely to be affected. In particular, men who have sex with men and black African people are disproportionally affected. Gay and bisexual men are estimated to make up 2.6% of the population but 47.8% of all people living with HIV. In 2019, 76% of black African people newly diagnosed with HIV were heterosexual.

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The history of HIV/AIDs has been well documented, but are there still common knowledge gaps or myths about the disease that need addressing?

Yes, 35 years on from the AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign and although we have seen incredible medical advancements, social attitudes still very much remain in the past. We live in space age times with Stone Age mindsets. Stigma and discrimination are the biggest challenges people living with HIV still face. One in three people living with HIV have faced discrimination.

HIV is not just a ‘gay thing’; one in three people living with HIV in the UK are women, and 4,139 people were newly diagnosed with HIV in the UK in 2019. Out of these, sex between men accounted for 41.1% and 37.7% was through heterosexual contact.

Why is it important for workplaces to ensure managers and employees have a solid understanding of HIV/AIDS? What benefits have you seen from improving awareness at an organisational level?

As a responsible employer, you will want to ensure that your employees are treated fairly and that those living with HIV are protected from discrimination in the workplace.

By law, HIV is classed as a disability, therefore The Equality Act 2010 protects people living with HIV, and this protection applies from the moment they are diagnosed. This equality legislation ensures disabled people and people living with HIV have the same access, as far as reasonable, to do everything involved in doing a job as non-disabled people.

For people living with HIV some examples of reasonable adjustments could be:

  • Time-off when starting new HIV medication due to side effects such as fatigue, nausea, sleep disturbance and diarrhoea.
  • Time-off for hospital and clinic appointments.
  • Flexibility in working hours and occasional working from home.

In order for reasonable adjustments to be provided an employee needs to have shared information about their HIV status, which due to HIV related stigma and discrimination can be difficult for a person. Being aware and sensitive to these concerns will encourage an employee to feel more comfortable in sharing personal information.

Confidentiality is key. It is illegal to ask people about their HIV status prior to being offered a job, as well as not telling everyone attending a training session that an attendee is living with HIV – there is no risk to others so it does not need to be shared. Organisations that promote inclusion are more likely to attract, develop and retain the best staff.

How has Covid-19 affected those with HIV, both from a mental and physical health perspective, but also with regards to their jobs?

People living with HIV can already feel isolated and anxious about their health and Covid-19 definitely exacerbated those feelings.

At the beginning of the pandemic back in March/April 2020, many people living with HIV did not know how this would interact with Covid-19 and whether they would be classed as vulnerable. This then further led to forced disclosures, because people living with HIV felt like they had to tell their employer rather than wanting to. Clients described to us not knowing whether to take long-term sick leave, which would have meant a reduction in pay, or carry on working and potentially be exposed to another virus.

Employers should be working to promote their organisations as a safe inclusive environment as this will enable their workforce to feel more comfortable sharing their status, secure in the knowledge that they will receive full support and will remain confidential.  

What advice would you give for L&D and training professionals looking to better educate their workers on HIV?

The first step is to ensure all staff are provided with diversity and equality training, which includes information on HIV and the importance of confidentiality at work.

It’s also critical to integrate HIV into existing policies and procedures. Ensure that your policy backs up the training, and work with staff to develop a diversity and equality policy that includes information on HIV. Make sure all staff are aware of this policy and where to find it.

You can also end stigma in your workplace by holding events to raise awareness – use annual calendar events like World AIDS Day (1 December) to mark this.

Would you like a better understanding of HIV and how you can support those living with HIV in a work setting? HRZone and TrainingZone are partnering with Brigstowe to host a free online event on HIV Awareness in the Workplace on Tuesday 29 June at 12pm (BST). Register here.

HIV awareness session

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