How to have a fitness for work conversation with your worker?

Risk Matters - Winter 2023

Picture of Shauna


LGIS Senior HR Risk Consultant

Shauna is a Senior HR Risk Consultant at LGIS, she delivers a range of services to support mitigation and prevention of psychological injury. Her role includes facilitating workshops targeting bullying/harassment, supporting community facing roles in managing challenging behaviour and navigating psychosocial risk management.

Having fitness for work conversations can be confronting and challenging for both leaders and workers as they may involve questions of personal health (mental or physical), uncertain outcomes, sensitive topics and strong emotions. As challenging as they are, they are a vital tool for effective people management.

Fitness for work (FFW) is the process of understanding if a worker is able to complete their job tasks safely, without presenting a risk to themselves, colleagues or the organisation.

When we talk about fitness for work, we aren’t talking about if they have the necessary qualifications or experience to perform a role. We’re looking to understand if there are any individual factors that influence their ability to perform the inherent requirements of the role, for example – fatigue, substance use, medical fitness requirement (if applicable to role), mental health and wellbeing.

People managers have a duty of care to ensure they support and provide a safe working environment including fitness for work for their workers.

To enable successful conversations with workers, there are several ways in which local governments can support their leaders:

  • Review pre-employment medicals in line with the inherent requirements of the role (use job dictionaries).
  • Ensure any associated procedures or policies outline any specific requirements so that workers can understand and be assessed.
  • Help workers understand their own obligations to report any restrictions on their ability to perform their role safely.
  • Support leaders to address any concerns they may have by facilitating any fitness for work assessments.

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How to have a fitness for work conversation with your worker?

Having fitness for work conversations can be confronting and challenging for both leaders and workers as they may involve questions of personal health (mental or physical), uncertain outcomes, sensitive topics and strong emotions. As challenging as they are, they are a vital tool for effective people management.

Read More »

Don't know the requirements of a role? Use a job dictionary!

LGIS has created over 35 job dictionaries for the most common roles in local government. The dictionaries outline the physical, psychological and cognitive load of a role, identifying key risks and demands on the individual. These are available to download on the LGIS website or talk to our Injury Prevention team at [email protected]

Avoiding such conversations can lead to issues like prolonged or exacerbation of the problem, risk to their own safety and that of others, sends a message to the wider organisation that this standard is acceptable, reduced productivity, and increased absenteeism.

Local government leaders should assess the situation and then request a worker do a fitness for work (FFW) assessment. The process of these assessments must be lawful and reasonable.

The following questions can assist you in understanding the situation in detail before you strike a conversation with your worker:
  • Do you actually see a need for the examination? Look for signs like prolonged absences from work, absences without explanation or evidence of an illness which relates to the capacity to perform the inherent requirements of the job.
  • Has the worker provided adequate medical information which explains the absences and demonstrates fitness to perform duties?
  • Are the activities being performed deemed high risk?
  • Are there legitimate concerns that the worker’s illness will impact others?
  • Has the worker agreed to the assessment by the practitioner selected by the local government?
  • Has the worker been advised of the details which led to the concerns that they are not fit for duty?
  • Is the medical assessment truly aimed at determining whether the employee is fit for work now or in the future?

How to navigate FFW conversations?

1. Preparing for the conversation

Consult your relevant policies, procedures and guidelines such as work, health and safety, FFW, discrimination and human resources, and employee relations.

Before you have the conversation, have a clear understanding of the situation you would like to resolve. Collect the necessary evidence or facts to support your concern around the worker’s ability to perform the inherent requirements of their role.

Consult with your internal HR Team or WALGA to support you with the process as required. Think from your worker’s perspective. Enter the conversation with a desire to genuinely understand their situation.

2. Give the worker time to prepare

Make an appointment with the worker with context to allow them enough time to prepare. Use your understanding of the worker to guide when to schedule the conversation. This could sound like – ‘Do you have some time this week? I would like to discuss…’

Steps for a successful conversation
Step 1 – Describe the problem
  • Remember, don’t rush and take your time.
  • Describe to the worker what you would like to discuss, and the purpose of the meeting.
  • Communicate the concern you have identified, and link it back to duty of care and how it might be impacting their ability to perform their role.
  • Focus on your observations and behaviours you would like to discuss.
Step 2 – Listen and engage
  • Allow the worker time to respond to your concerns.
  • Focus on listening more and talking less.
  • Remember that active listening is all about being present.
  • Give your full and undivided attention and maintain eye contact.
  • Avoid any sort of distractions and paraphrasing.
Step 3 – Acknowledge
  • Acknowledge the worker’s point of view and openness to share.
  • Identify when there are differences between views.
  • Acknowledge any sort of emotion expressed.
  • Remember to not be judgemental.
Step 4 – Reassess your position
  • Based on the commentary provided by the worker, you may adjust your approach moving forward.
  • Offer any support you can provide or referral to EAP (employee assistance program).
Step 5 – Look for solutions / identify next steps
  • At this stage you will need to prioritise how you will communicate your next steps.
  • This may look like working with the worker on adjustments that need to be made or communicate business needs like FFW assessment.
  • Close the conversation with a summary of elements discussed and next steps (this may include a timeline).
3. After the conversation

Document every conversation and capture any agreements that were reached. As a leader, take the opportunity to reflect on the conversation. This will support you in learning from the experience and identify areas for improvement. Consider doing this with an HR representative or a senior leader.

Follow-up with the worker so both parties are clear about the process moving forward. You might like to do this in writing.

Most importantly, whilst fitness for work is being established, it is critical that you treat the employee the same way as you did prior to the conversation – in other words, business as usual (unless there are critical safety concerns).

More Information

Get in touch with WALGA Employee Relations Service, which provides comprehensive human resource management and industrial relations support to local government members. The WALGA team regularly provides advice on fitness for work matters to local governments.

Have a question you'd like answered?

Each month we take your questions to one of our LGIS team members to answer.

If you want to submit a question for next issue, email us at [email protected]

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