As a gay man, I know where to get tested for HIV – it’s been part of my DNA since I was 21 back in the 1980’s. In those days you’d wait for a week to get tested in a sterile STD clinic (as they were known at the time), not very discrete and not very pleasant. You’d sit in a waiting room (sometimes queuing to be seen the same day) and your eyes would wonder round to see who else was in the room, and wonder why they were there.
Things moved along a bit in the 1990’s STD clinics became Sexual Health Clinics and bespoke services for gay men popped up. You could get tested outside a hospital in a more comfortable environment. The Royal Free was the first hospital in London to offer same day testing, but equally a nightmare to get seen urgently (I know this from experience).
Now my HIV testing was never due to rampant behaviour, I did it as a matter of course when I ‘upgraded’ boyfriends and once when I had a scare. That was when my partner of three years told me he was HIV positive (he wasn’t – he lied). Thankfully for me the result was always the same – negative.
In 2016 I know, if I needed to I could pop along to 56 Dean Street in Soho and get my HIV test result in 5 minutes. But that’s because I have a long history of knowing what to do and where to go, as do most gay men.
But HIV affects all communities; not just gay men, not just injecting drug users but all communities. Of particular high risk are Afro-Caribbean communities and young people, and in the same way gay men can get HIV so do straight people. There is one clear difference however – stigma.
Stigma affects peoples’ judgement. The thought of going to a Sexual Health Clinic frightens people even if there has been a perceived risk of infection. Some people don’t even know where to go to get tested or what it involves. There’s a myth that needles and vial of blood are required and people put it to the backs of their minds. In the meantime infection rates increase with London accounting for nearly half of all HIV infections – some 17 per cent it is estimated remain undiagnosed.
Within that undiagnosed percentage are some of your workforce; gay, straight, bi – whatever. HIV is not discriminating – no matter how affluent people are, whatever their background or wherever they work.
In November 2015 I proudly launched the UK’s largest workplace testing event at Transport for London (TfL). It came from a discussion we had during an OUTbound Leadership Team meeting, back in the summer. At the time I wasn’t convinced it was the right thing to do but I couldn’t shake it from my mind and so I set about making this happen.
The first thing to do was find a testing partner; Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) were chosen because they had done some prior testing with British Airways air crew but nothing on this scale. They also work with the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic community which makes up around 40 per cent of our workforce – and better than that they were enthusiastic with the idea.
Then the internal engagement started; the first thing I wanted to make clear was that this should be a testing event open to all. Therefore this needed to be branded as an Occupational Heath event and not just targeting just gay men. My colleague (and now friend) Dr Olivia Carlton OBE heads up our Occupational Health department and enthusiastically bought into the idea.
There were the expected concerns; what happens if there is a positive result? Where do we hold the screening? How do people sign up? But most importantly – would anybody turn up? These worries were easily overcome by bringing in THT to make sure all stakeholders were clear of the process.
By October it was time to approach the Unions, if there was ever a place that this could get squashed it would be there – or so I thought. The strangest event happen though; on one Sunday whilst I was at home. One my husband’s colleagues (he also works at TfL) a Union representative emailed me a the letter that was sent from our HR Employee Relations team asking me if I had seen it, and what was my view? The funny thing was it was a letter that I had written but sent under the Occupational Health banner, I think the worry was that it had bypassed OUTbound somehow and that we were being left out. Once I reassured them of this the final piece of the puzzle came together. We were good to go.
During November we planned a series of Internal Communications initiatives; from payslip messaging to intranet and social media posts – we jointly brand these as both Occupational Health and OUTbound. We also had my deputy and I at the time Ben Lyon lined up to be first in the queue to be tested, and get our pictures taken for further Intranet posts.
I was nervous though. Not for my result but for the fact that we had no idea if we would have anybody through the door (we opted for turn-up and get tested sessions on the first day). How wrong I was? By 10am we had queues and in the first day’s testing THT ran out of testing kits.
The second day’s event was a booked event which was fully subscribed within half a day, people who weren’t even booked on turned up in the hope to get tested. The final event was drop in again and was once again fully subscribed at our Greenwich offices.
Overall the event was so popular that we followed it up with a ‘wash-up’ event to cater for those that couldn’t get on first time round.
So this begs the question; why did it work so well? I’d like to say that it was because I worked to join everything up, and brought everyone round to my way of thinking but it wasn’t that at all. It was because bringing the testing to people de-stigmatised getting tested, a work environment was actually preferable to a medical one as strange as that might seem. Yes of course it’s important to get your communications right, and get people on board but once again I was always pushing up against open doors.
So why don’t more workplaces offer this service? The simple answer – I think – is that it’s the hump. The hump that stops people getting tested in the first place. The hump that organisations think that this pigeonholes people. But actually joining these two things up gets people over the hump, and then you realise how much of an important intervention this is for all staff.
After all wouldn’t you rather have colleagues who know their HIV status? Or as Olivia so eloquently put it ‘HIV diagnosis and testing is crucial and early diagnosis leads to better treatment’.
Workplace HIV testing checklist:
- Find the right testing partner
- Engage early with your Occupational Health department (if you have one)
- Get your organisation’s management team on board
- Ensure you have the right facilities on the day (medical room or meeting rooms) away from main office functions
- Engage with the Unions
- Start your communications early
- Ideally have senior non-stereotypical people as role models for testing
- Keep the PR machine going through the event