What employers need to know about HIV and AIDS

World Aids Day takes place on 1 December annually. It is a day to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS and support those who are affected by it, whether they are living with the virus or have lost loved ones to it. Inclusive workplaces need to know about HIV and AIDS so employees feel comfortable to share their status, if they choose to. Steven Copsey, CMI Qualifications Lead and Senior Inclusion and Diversity Consultant, explains more.

What is HIV and AIDS?

The 1st December marks World AIDS Day. We’ve all heard of AIDS and HIV but in the spirit of context setting let’s just have a think about the two terms, what they mean and how they’re connected to each other.

HIV is an acronym. It stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It’s a virus that damages the cells in your immune system and weakens your ability to fight everyday infections and disease. The HIV virus can be passed from person to person.

AIDS is another acronym and stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS is not just one thing, it covers a number of potentially life-threatening infections and illnesses. AIDS cannot be transmitted from one person to another, it is the result of infection by HIV.

So, think of this as cause and effect: HIV is the cause that can be spread; AIDS is the effect that the virus can have on an individual.  Fewer people develop AIDS now, as more people are on treatment for HIV and staying well.

Living with HIV and AIDS

There’s still a lot of stigma around AIDS and HIV, but contracting HIV is no longer the life changing sentence it used to be. In fact, there’s research to suggest that the HIV virus, if properly treated, has less of a physical impact on your day to day life than diabetes or high blood pressure.

The mental health implications can take a toll though. Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions that affects people living with HIV. This can be due to the social stigma, or the perceived shame of carrying the virus, or it could be a side effect of the medication they’re taking.

Overcoming the stigma of AIDS

We’ve come a long way since the 80s when by the end of 1984 almost half of those diagnosed with AIDS in the UK had died. But there’s still very much a societal holdover from these times.

There are a number of studies out there suggesting that we are far more likely to remember bad things than good. Why? Because our memories are often associated with emotion and a negative emotion can often be far more overwhelming than a positive one. Just like when thinking about our biases, this is something we’re going to have to work on re-programming.

Understanding HIV and AIDS in the present day

In 2013 UNAIDS set up the ambitious target of 90-90-90. The hope being that by 2020:

  • 90% of those with HIV would know their status
  • 90% of those diagnosed HIV+ would receive sustained antiretroviral therapy
  • 90% of people receiving this therapy would have viral suppression (this means the virus is dormant and can not be passed on to others)

So how did this go? Not bad at all, actually. By 2020:

  • 84% of those living with HIV knew their status
  • 87% of those diagnosed HIV+ were accessing therapy
  • 90% of those receiving this therapy had viral suppression

Having this positive mindset when it comes to thinking about HIV in the modern world is incredibly important. If we want to create entirely inclusive workplaces we need to make sure people feel able to share their status should they choose to.

If the topic makes you feel uncomfortable, that’s fine too. Go and read up on HIV and AIDS, watch some videos, do all the stuff you would for any other inclusion and diversity area. Knowledge is the tool you need to help create that safe space for others.

It’s thought that since the ‘80s, the total number of people that have died from AIDS related illnesses is more than 33 million worldwide. And this isn’t all in the “distant” past. It’s estimated that around 680,000 people died of AIDS related illnesses in 2020, and over 4,000 people still contract HIV every day (with almost 60% of these infections occurring in sub-Saharan Africa).

Understanding for employees remembering loved ones lost to AIDS

Employers also need to be mindful that they may have employees whose loved ones have lost their lives to AIDS. World AIDS Day is not just about raising awareness, it’s about remembering all of those who lost their lives and loved ones. People who couldn’t be saved because the treatment wasn’t available yet and who were stigmatised, sometimes by their own families, because they’d contracted a virus.  

The 1st December might be a day for people to reflect on those they’ve lost. They might want to do this quietly, they may not want to talk about it. But some people might want to share their fond memories of their friends and families, to reminisce on people that were taken too soon, or to think about the grief they dealt with.

Questions for employers to consider this World Aids Day

Listen. Be aware. Be compassionate. And ask yourself a few questions:

“How can I improve my understanding of HIV/AIDS?”

“How can I raise awareness?”

“How can I make people feel comfortable with the terms HIV/AIDS?”

“Can we set some time aside for remembrance, a couple of minutes silence with the opportunity (but not pressure) to share?”

Learn more about awareness raising and supporting colleagues who are affected by HIV and AIDS by getting in touch with us or if you’re an Inclusive Employers member, please speak with your account manager.