In the late 1980s, AIDS was a frightening spectre coming at us fast.
Everyone was saying: “We’ve got to do something!” Our company doctor warned us about the risk to the labour force and called for action. But what were we to do?
All we knew was that it had been discovered amongst males in the US gay community and was soon prevalent amongst heterosexual men and women everywhere.
There was no treatment. You got it, and it killed you. And because of its association with sex, it carried a powerful stigma, so that no one would admit to having it. When we tried to engage some of our staff about their HIV/AIDS status, they simply clammed up.
Today, the situation is entirely different, thank goodness. The stigma has all but disappeared, and while there is still no cure, the condition can be controlled. In short, while managers 30 years ago might have had some excuse for not being more involved, this no longer holds water today.
Guides and courses
The challenge you face is how to protect your workforce against the spread of HIV/AIDS and help HIV-positive staff remain healthy and productive for years.
You can start by educating all managers and supervisors about the disease, and what can be done to fight it. A large number of comprehensive international guides, covering every aspect of HIV/AIDS, are available.
These include: HIV/AIDS
– An Action Guide for Managers, by Family Health International; Managing HIV/AIDS in the Workplace, by the International Labour Organization; and Employers’ Handbook on HIV/AIDS – A Guide for Action, by the International Organisation of Employers.
But, while useful, they run to many pages and are laborious reads. It’s far better for all employees to attend a short course; this will increase everyone’s level of understanding and allow them to share ideas and concerns. Several of these courses are available in South Africa.
Imsimbi Training (imsimbi.co.za), the Mind Spa Institute (themindspa.co.za) and the BOTI Training Institute (boti.co.za) all offer courses specifically developed to help business managers understand the disease, the challenges it poses in the workplace, and how best to deal with them.
The next step is to develop an HIV/ AIDS workplace policy. This is aimed at managing sensitive issues such as confidentiality of medical information, continuation of employment for HIV-positive staff, and assurance that testing and counselling are voluntary.
Once you’ve put this policy in place, you can actively help prevent the spread of the disease. This centres on education – education on the transmission of HIV, non-discrimination towards HIV-positive colleagues, availability of condoms and voluntary counselling, testing and treatment of staff.
The final step is to put in place care and support facilities for HIV-positive employees. These should include more counselling, time off for medical treatment, access to antiretroviral drugs, and implementation of compassionate workplace provisions such as medical aid assistance.
Fortunately, several organisations are available to assist you with all this. They include Aid for Aids (aidforaids.co.za), which offers a wide range of services such as counselling and testing, financial impact analysis and workplace policy, and the Aids Foundation of South Africa (aids.org.za), which seeks to mitigate the impact of HIV/ AIDS through the implementation of health and community development projects.
It’s a no-brainer. Apart from the obvious need for showing compassion to those affected by this dreadful disease, it makes good business sense to fight HIV/AIDS as hard as you can. Your success depends on employing healthy, productive people. For their sake and yours, take action today.