Unknown 27 years ago, HIV/AIDS has already caused an estimated 25 million deaths worldwide. In a detailed report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2006, an estimated 36.3 million persons of working age were living with HIV/AIDS – the vast majority in sub-Saharan Africa. As the world advances in yet another year and strategies are made to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the burden of disease within the workplace continues to escalate. The relentless spread of HIV/AIDS is markedly reducing human resource and economic growth in countries hardest hit by the epidemic, jeopardizing their efforts to reduce poverty and create new jobs, especially for the youth.
Businesses continue to experience deep economic troughs occasioned by man-hours lost and health insurance claims made by employees.
Unfortunately, this challenge is not always met with innovative adjustments; in the case of HIV/AIDS, discrimination and selective hiring has taken root in some corporate organizations with the aim of lowering the constantly rising staff costs. Appreciating this, many other organizations embarked on establishing clear workplace policy on HIV/AIDS.
Global efforts to establish guidelines and standards for a comprehensive work place policy on HIV/AIDS has seen ILO partner with UNESCO to develop the ‘Code of Practice on HIV/AIDS and the world of work’. The code contains fundamental principles for policy development and practical guidelines from which concrete responses can be developed at enterprise, community, and national levels in the key areas prevention of HIV/AIDS, management and mitigation of the impact of HIV/AIDS on the world of work, care and support of workers infected and affected by HIV/AIDS and elimination of stigma and discrimination on the basis of real or perceived HIV status.
Development of a workplace policy can be a challenging task for most companies since the management may be lack the technical know-how or insight into ‘management’ of HIV/AIDS, a medical phenomenon. Below are points to consider when developing a policy on HIV/AIDS in the work place:
1. Employee health monitoring: Most organizations provide their employees with a medical cover either directly or through a health provider. Often, the details of an employee’s visit to the doctor are not audited by the management so as to plan for future care provision. As a result, the economic burden of treatment escalates as the employee’s health deteriorates in the case of a chronic illness such as HIV/AIDS. This , could be curtailed if the management got involved in ensuring that their employees are not only treated, but also kept healthy through such practices as organizing or scheduling regular health check-ups.
2.Assessing the workplace environment: Frequently, employees with HIV/AIDS have been discriminated by colleagues at the work place. This sometimes is inevitable due to the heterogeneity of the workforce. For a long time, managers remained unresponsive to such dynamics, while affected employees continued to suffer. As such, before embarking on any policy formulation exercise, the management should seek to assess the knowledge, awareness, perception and behavior of its manpower so as to develop an environment-specific policy that will not only stem out such discrimination but also encourage empathy among peers.
3. Training of health promoters and champions: Implementation of a workplace policy on HIV/AIDS is dependent on an integrated approach, where both managers and employees are informed on its need. This can be achieved by establishing an in-house health campaign such as ‘know-your-status’ to encourage all employees to get tested thus reducing the stigma associated with testing. As part of such a program, education on positive living regardless of the outcome may enhance social acceptance. Further, behavior change messages could be broadcast internally. A winning workplace policy should endeavor to provide for internal ‘wellness champions’ through a peer educator training program. Peer education remains one of the most effective information dissemination channels, and thorough it, social stigma can be reduced.
4. Provision of Comprehensive Care: Health as a concept incorporates physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual wellness. Most health care programs within organizations have focused on the physical eradication of an illness with little or no attention to the other aspects. In fact, it is established that the economic, social and emotional burden of disease remains the most important predisposing factor for recurrence and relapse of illness. Therefore, a programme on HIV/AIDS should synchronize the physical and non-physical aspects of HIV/AIDS. For example, while most programs provide anti-retroviral therapy cover (ARTs), addition of supportive nutrition, physical therapy, financial benefits for recuperating or incapacitated employees and psychological counseling will strengthen the policy.
5. Ensuring sustainability: It is known that HIV/AIDS imposes a huge financial burden on the family due to the need for therapy and proper, often expensive, care. Most employers may provide cover for the employee during his tenure, but upon his demise, the spouse and children- who frequently are also infected, are left with the challenge of meeting their medical expenses. Recognizing this fact, a successful policy should at least guarantee access to therapy for all employees and their dependants for life, effectively reducing the financial and psychological burden on employees’ families. Such effort effectively curbs current infections and rolls back the trends in mortality from the disease as well.
In conclusion, HIV is not just ‘out there’ in communities, it also affects employees and these are basic examples of how to respond to HIV and AIDS in the workplace.