Ending the workplace stigma of HIV

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With the right training and support HIV positive people can be valuable additions to your workforce

In 2010 the Coalition government’s anticipated welfare reforms, and the changing political climate, meant increasing numbers of people living with HIV wanted to return to the workplace. People who are HIV positive are protected by the Equality Act and current disability legislation, however stigma remains a huge barrier, preventing them from returning to work. With advances in medical treatment many felt well enough to do so, but would the labour market welcome them with open arms?

The Terrence Higgins Trust launched Work Positive in 2011 to help people who are living with HIV manage their transition back into work. Participants are offered six months' work experience in a safe and supportive environment that understands their HIV status. The programme helps them to refresh their skills, build confidence, plug any gaps in their employment history and gain a reference. Frequently this placement becomes a full-time paid role.

We’ve worked with some fantastic organisations, including ViiV Healthcare – a pharmaceutical company specialising in the development of therapies for HIV – the charity Foodchain, and statutory body Healthwatch Camden. However, I am still struggling to find enough corporate sponsors to help support the growing number of people living with HIV who want to re-enter the workplace. This is a real shame, because people who are living with HIV have so much to offer.

Recruiting someone who is living with HIV demonstrates a commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion, and can help to change workplace culture. It also means you’ll gain an enthusiastic, motivated and skilled employee, and expand your talent pool. Tom, who has been living with HIV for more than twenty years and was unemployed for 17 years, explains: “In September I started a full-time paid role at the parent company of my current employer, and I’m thrilled. I can’t believe how much my life has turned around, and I can't wait to get started.”

People living with HIV may have fears about managing their condition, the side effects of their medication in the workplace (for instance fatigue), or heading to doctor’s appointments. To attract prospective workers employers should be transparent about their culture and positively promote their values. For example, at the Terrence Higgins Trust we have a HIV in the workplace policy. You wouldn’t need something as specific as this, but a policy on supporting employees managing a long-term health condition, and a distinction between sickness and disability leave would be great first steps in supporting HIV positive employees.

Often people living with HIV are anxious about sharing details of their condition with a future employer – be it HR, occupational health, their manager or colleagues. They have legitimate fears about stigma and discrimination, so it is crucial that prospective employees know their status, if disclosed, will be protected confidentially.

Many of the people I see through Work Positive are long-term unemployed. Going straight back into work isn’t easy, so partner organisations need to be able to give participants the chance to ask for help without any judgment. We’ve seen such success through this programme in terms of secured employment and personal and professional development, and any organisation wishing to get involved will too. The opportunity to take those first steps back into the workplace in a safe, supportive and (most importantly) understanding environment are crucial for a successful return to work.

Ruth Burns is a Work Positive programme co-ordinator at the Terrence Higgins Trust