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How To Handle Stress At Work While Living With HIV

HIV nurse

Don't let the stresses of life and work balance impact your inner peace. 

A client I’ll call "Aiden" has been doing really well since he was first diagnosed with HIV. He’s doing fine on his regimen. He’s eating well, exercising, and getting rest. But regardless, Aiden had some emotional ups and downs at first, learning to accept his diagnosis and staying optimistic about his future. 

Through this experience, Aiden feels like he has become much more aware of what is really important in his life: making the most of each day, giving back to the world, and taking care of the people he cares about. He has become more grateful for the blessings each day brings. 

He describes himself as focused on the big picture, and isn't sweating the small stuff like he used to do. He thought he had also become a more patient person. But lately he’s been questioning whether all that focus on the big picture is working against him, and these days he's unaware how patient he truly is.

Here’s why: Aiden is finding himself less and less tolerant at work. And it’s the small stuff that is getting on his nerves, such as the rules and regulations you have to live with in a corporation, multiple sign-offs when it seems clear that something needs to be approved, and meetings that seem to go on forever (not to mention meetings that seem to be nothing more than preparation for the next meeting).

Recently, a budget he had carefully prepared got sent back to him because of a “formatting error” that was so minor it was scarcely visible to the human eye. So what can we learn? 

You’re Focused on the Big Picture. Why Isn’t Your Job?    

Aiden was ready to holler by the end of the day. His time seemed to be consumed by one bureaucratic demand after another, none of which, in his mind, had anything to do with effectively getting the job done. And actually took up time that got in the way of his productivity. Isn’t being productive what his job is supposed to be about? 

Aiden has worked in his company for a few years. The bureaucracy of the world of organizations is not new to him. But he asked himself: Why is this getting on my nerves so much lately?

And then he realized why. His focus on the big picture – what’s really important – seems also to be leaving him less patient with what’s not so important. Or at least doesn’t seem to be important in his mind. Aiden knows that attitude in the workplace can lead to a negative attitude, and that’s definitely not going to benefit him. 

Aiden expressed how he was feeling about his job like this: “I have no intention of leaving my company. I like it here. So that means I am going have to find a way to be at peace with the small stuff. And yes, maybe even sweat some of the small stuff if that’s what the company requires.” Wow! A lot of patience was going to be needed. 

He also asked me: “How am I going to do this? Being more aware of what’s really important in life is the gift living with HIV has given me. I don’t want to lose that perspective because it’s a key to my emotional wellness. But how do I do that and also not rebel against those daily annoyances that seem like needless bureaucracy but are part of functioning in an organization?”

With a smile, Aiden said, “It’s not like I have suddenly become more enlightened than everyone around me. But to be honest, some days I just have to wonder.” 

Here’s what we came up with: 

Stay grateful. Having an attitude of gratitude is something Aiden had been working on as a way to stay optimistic. We talked about how being grateful for his job, the aspects of it that are clearly benefiting him and the aspects that go along with supporting the systems his company has put in place. Aiden realized that by staying grateful, he could stay positive, more patient, less likely to get annoyed. 

Accept what you don’t know. Organizations put all those little policies and procedures in place for reasons you may not be aware of. It might help to think of what life might be like at your job if there weren’t orderly procedures in place. Chaos might be a whole lot harder to tolerate. So try to look at it this way: The bureaucracy isn’t in place to make my life miserable, it’s in place to help make sure the doors stay open. And most likely, each of those procedures has a reason for its existence. 

Have a sense of humor. Sometimes you just have to smile and say: “Signatures required all the way up the chain of command? Well… okay. Here goes.” Having a sense of humor about an onerous task can make it a little less onerous. As the saying goes, “I’m just happy to be here.” There’s truth to that. 

Shift your perspective. Don’t give up on focusing on what’s really important in life. That’s what helps you to stay optimistic. But look at it this way: It’s the small stuff that helps make the big stuff happen. The foundation. And if you tend to the foundation, what you’re building will be that much stronger. Sure, some prioritizing may be necessary to avoid getting stuck in the weeds. Keeping your eyes on the prize will help you to maintain your priorities. 

Use some time management. Sure, following procedures that feel like unnecessary bureaucracy can take a chunk out of day, and that’s frustrating. And if you’re like Aiden, living with HIV has made you that much more aware of making the best use of time, especially the times of the day when you are feeling most energetic. So you may have to think about your day in terms of what you want to accomplish when you’re at your peak, and what can be saved for times when you’re not on your A game. Is it possible that you might be able to shift some tasks around so that the less important stuff gets done when you might even welcome passing the time with something less demanding. 

Keep your smile in place. I’ll be direct here. What you don’t want is to be perceived by your co-workers and your manager as being dissatisfied, grouchy, negative. Especially if you may at some point be in the position of needing to ask for some additional consideration or accommodations. In other words, don’t draw unwanted attention to yourself by being the person who’s always complaining, or constantly needing to be reminded of the rules. Smile! Even when you aren’t feeling it.    

Keep in touch with yourself. I talked with Aiden about doing frequent check-ins on his own emotions and attitude. He took brief moments throughout the day to ask himself questions such as: How am I feeling physically and emotionally? Anything I’m worried or annoyed about? What am I grateful for? These check-ins helped him to be aware of himself to help avoid falling into the trap of going negative. As well as to also be aware of what he needed to do to maintain his big picture perspective and not over-focus on the small stuff. And keep in mind that when you are unhappy with yourself, you are also more likely to be unhappy with what’s going on around you. 

Remember that patience is a virtue. Keep nurturing your patience. This will benefit you physically, emotionally, spiritually. This is a gift you give to yourself and everybody you come into contact with. 

Sure, living with HIV has taught you what’s really important in life. And the bureaucracy at your job sure can get annoying. But it will only get down if you allow it to. So don’t. Staying on top of those annoying little details is what makes the big things possible.  

Stay focused on the big picture!    

Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and author in New York City, who specializes in working with individuals diagnosed with chronic and catastrophic medical conditions, their caregivers, and professionals. He maintains a website, 

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