To love and to work
We often hear about efforts to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in many parts of the world including the Philippines. In recent years, our country had documented a dramatic increase in rates of HIV/AIDS infection. Among the most at risk are young gay men.
This prompted researchers (Melgar et al., 2011) to investigate risky sexual behaviors of young adults in their early twenties and thirties working in business process outsourcing (BPOs)—the fastest-growing industry in the Philippines. Findings showed that the combination of several factors such as permissive youth culture, age, income, mobility, technology, work structure and work environment contributed to a heightened risk for HIV infection.
Most researches, such as the one cited above, were focused on preventive efforts to stop the spread of HIV. However, one cannot help but wonder what life is like after getting HIV. Specifically, given the prevailing perceptions about people with HIV, how are those identified as having this illness treated in the workplace?
Early this year I conducted an in-depth study on the lives of eight young gay men living with HIV. Participants were mostly professionals working locally and abroad who had been diagnosed with the illness for about a year. Results suggest that experiences of stigmatization such as feelings of isolation, alienation and shame were the main emotional experiences upon disclosing their HIV status in the workplace.
Shared feelings of isolation were echoed among participants when they recalled their experiences of disclosure in the workplace. One participant vividly remembered being limited with one’s work.
“They seem to have isolated me…Even if I continue with work, there was a set of limitation in terms of what area I’m placed,” he said in Filipino.
Eventually, he was forced to leave his work because, according to his superiors, his HIV status could tarnish the reputation of the organization. Other participants shared experiences of constantly feeling belittled by coworkers and other people who look at them from head to toe.
To have and sustain work for one’s family is one of their primary concerns especially since most of them were forced to resign from work due to their condition. They all expressed the desire to gain a stable job to support themselves and their families.
“I want a stable job primarily to help my parents so that they may enjoy themselves in their old age, to help them with all their needs,” one of the participants shared in Filipino.
Deep family ties push them to strive harder and live beyond their illness. Moreover, their sense of who they are as young adults is greatly nourished by their relationships within the family. They draw personal meaning from their work or whatever work activity they engage in after being forced to leave their organization. This is reflected in their efforts to remain independent and competent.
Despite the daunting obstacles faced by people with HIV in the workplace, a re-evaluation of their emotional experience showed their determination to accept one’s person beyond the illness, to continue fighting for oneself and be empowered, to demonstrate how they value their family and assert financial independence. These show that given proper guidance such as what the international organization Global Fund provides, people with HIV can still be competent employees and effective members of the community.
How can they be helped?
There is a great need to provide substantial support especially in the first year after diagnosis. Government, as well as non-government organizations may beef up campaigns to encourage HIV testing, provide extensive counseling services, and set up mechanisms for job search and placement of people with HIV. Companies may explicitly include HIV testing as part of a comprehensive health package, as well as craft policies that safeguard HIV positive employees from discrimination.
From a person having HIV to a person living with HIV, the journey of HIV positive employees continues toward greater appreciation of life. Despite great problems and daunting obstacles, their lives speak of what really matters regardless if you have the illness or not—that to live means exercising one’s capacity to work in order to take care of and show love to one’s family.
(Nico Canoy is a Ph.D student in social-organizational psychology at the Ateneo Department of Psychology. The article was based on his research, “Developing People in Contexts: Integrating interpretative phenomenological analysis and ecological systems perspective in exploring young gay men living with HIV. For comments and questions, e-mail [email protected])
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