The Fair Work Ombudsman recently released a statement in response to the common practice of some businesses insisting upon attending medical appointments with employees. It’s a hot topic right now, so we’ve called in a Guest Guru to talk you through it.
Nicole Lord is a safety and return to work expert who has worked for major Australian corporations, such as WorkSafe, StarTrack Express, VersaCold and GM Holden.
In case you missed the statement released by Fair Work Australia, here are a few key points:
- Fair Work Australia does not consider it reasonable for an employer to seek to attend a medical appointment with an employee
- They do consider this a breach of employee privacy
- They advise that this behaviour is not condoned or supported, unless it has been requested by the employee
In other words, the situation is pretty clear cut. Unless an employee explicitly requests your attendance, private medical appointments are off limits. So let’s take a look at the real issues here.
When a workplace culture is positive and trusting, an employee will generally be happy to return to work, provided they have support from their employer and feel that someone is helping them to navigate the minefield of Worker’s Compensation. However, when businesses are too focused on simply avoiding lost time injuries (a work injury that results in an employee not being able to work their next shift or more) and not the person’s recovery, workers – and their unions – are justifiably disgruntled. Hence the pushback on a process that in some industries has become best practice (employers attending medical appoints).
So, what are your intentions and how good is your relationship with your employees?
It has become common for employers to set up preferred relationships with nearby doctors to ensure early intervention and return to work. Some programs also include visits to a physiotherapist or the like. Most workplaces established these processes with the right intentions – to reduce the time it takes for workers to see a doctor, create familiarization between doctors and workplaces, and at times, to reduce workers compensation costs by getting the worker back into the workplace sooner. This ‘return to work’ (RTW) focus can sometimes get clouded by the overriding need for businesses to avoid a lost time injury. (Lost time injuries are also a lag indicator developed to monitor an organisation’s safety performance – but in reality only measures early intervention).
And, this is what the Fair Work Ombudsman is talking about – sitting in on a private doctor’s consultation purely to speed up a return to work is not in the interests of all parties. It results in injured employees feeling like their employer doesn’t care about their wellbeing, and doctors feeling that they are being second guessed. As well as putting pressure on the diagnosis and the person’s recovery, employers get a reputation or putting profits before people.
So, what can you do? The key is to be prepared and be transparent. Here are a few tips:
- Set up a network of preferred practitioners and invite them to visit your workplace. This will help them to understand the jobs required to be done on site and the conditions of the workplace and the possible roles available for RTW arrangements
- Include the physical requirements of each job in the position description.
- Consult with workers to develop a RTW policy and early intervention program. This can include a line like “The RTW Coordinator may at times be requested to attend doctor appointments to help the worker facilitate a return to work.”
- Set up information packs for injured employees that include claim forms, choices of rehabilitation providers, guidance material, a copy of your company policy and procedures – including their responsibilities (to be signed) and the role of your designated RTW Coordinator.
- Establish RTW templates for suitable arrangement of work duties.
- Send the employee to the doctor with a few options of alternative duties if necessary – some organisations create business cards with space on the back to list 3 jobs/tasks that could be performed by the employee.
- Document RTW arrangements and ensure workers understand the arrangements are temporary and the goal is to return the worker to full pre-injury duties.
Remember, employers do have a legal requirement under the Accident Compensation Act to consult with employees and their doctors in regards to return to work. Asking your employee what types of jobs they can do is a great way to make the employee feel engaged and supported, while sending a doctor a proposed RTW arrangement for the person will show that your intentions are good. If detailed contact is required with a doctor to understand the worker’s condition then work with your insurance agent to facilitate this.
Employees also have a right to see their own doctor. However, the legislation states that, once every 3 months, an injured worker can be required to attend a medical examination as outlined by the insurer. This independent examination should be used wisely and in conjunction with a workplace assessment to get the best outcome for everyone.
The RTW Coordinator role is important and therefore not one that should be forced upon a payroll officer or junior HR staff member. Current legislation states that the role must be assigned to a person of appropriate seniority and that the person must be adequately trained. Having a trusting relationship with workers and unions also ensures that there is a coordinated and cooperative approach to return to work. Statistics show that returning a worker to the workplace is beneficial for the worker so ensuring supportive RTW processes are in place is a must. But remember – sit in the waiting room unless invited to assist an employee in a doctor’s consultation