Let’s talk about ‘fitness for placement’


I did a presentation yesterday to Dietetics students about to head out on their work placements.

Heading out on placement is an exciting, if not a bit nerve-wracking, experience.

Placements are the bridge between the academic study you’ve done and your future career. They are a chance to learn practical, on-the-job skills and get a feel for what it is like to work in your chosen field.

Most placements go fine. There might be small challenges or hiccups along the way, but these are generally sorted out.

Occasionally, placements don’t go so well.

Many factors can be responsible for a work placement not going so well. One of the more common ones is that students have an existing health or mental health condition that impacts on their ability to engage fully in the placement. For example, a student might have a mental illness like depression or anxiety and experiences a flare-up in the condition prior to, or in the early stages of the placement. The illness then gets in the way of them having a good placement experience.

Students may have heard of the term ‘fitness for placement’. The term often elicits anxiety because being deemed ‘not fit for placement’ is interpreted as ‘you aren’t good enough to do the placement’ or even worse ‘you aren’t good enough to work in this area’. Because of this, students might attempt to hide or conceal illness or difficult times from their supervisors/ placement coordinators.

Whilst the intention behind this concealment is often admirable (students want to prove to everyone that they can do it), the end result is often more distress for the student as their situation interacts with the stresses of the placement to exacerbate their illness further.

Fitness for placement should more accurately be interpreted as whether or not you are you in a good enough place at the moment to go to placement. There might be a number of reasons why ‘right now’ is not a good time for you to be on placement (illness, upsetting life event, caught in a crisis). The decision is not an assessment of your future capacity to do the placement. It simply says that right now might not be the best time.

The determination of whether a student is ‘fit for placement’ is made by the college in which the student sits. Each college has its own highly skilled team working to support students on placement. They have significant experience in supporting students on placement so they know what works and what doesn’t. The decision to deem a student ‘not fit for placement’ is not taken lightly. It is only made if the team thinks there are risks to you, or the people you might interact with on placement. The decision might feel like an attack, but it is actually an attempt to protect you.

You can influence the process!

If you have an ongoing health or mental health condition, consider making an appointment with one of our GPs. You can discuss your condition, perhaps review its management and they can link you to other health professionals in the university (e.g. counsellors or disability advisors) or in the community (e.g. specialists) who can help you manage the condition better. Having an ongoing health or medical condition won’t be what denies you the opportunity to go on placement, it will be how well that condition is managed.

If your condition is already well managed, you might still consider chatting to a Disability Advisor. Disability Advisors provide advice and support to students who have ongoing health and mental health conditions and help them understand how to navigate their degree and entry into the future workforce.

The other important thing is to communicate clearly with the placement support people within your college. If placements are approaching but you are having a difficult time at the moment, let them know. You don’t need to disclose everything that is happening. Just give them enough information so they understand what you are going through and you can have a collaborative conversation about whether you are ready for placement or not. You might decide to delay going on placement, or perhaps an alternative placement might be organised. The modern workplace is actually highly supportive of workers with health conditions and disabilities, but they need to know ahead of time, so that appropriate adjustments can be made.

You don’t have to be a passive recipient of any decision about fitness for placement. As with many things in life, getting in early is the key. Talk to people before your placement if you have concerns. My experience is that the university will go to great lengths to try and make sure that students get the best placement experience possible. Your responsibility is to to do an accurate self-assessment of your own capacity at the moment, and if you are concerned, start a conversation with the relevant person (GP, Disability Advisor, Placement support person).

And remember, ‘fitness for placement’ is not an underlying assessment of who you are as a person, your worth, your value. It is simply a decision tool used to try and maximise the number of students having good placement experiences.

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