A welfare meeting is an initial conversation an employer has with an employee either during a period of sickness absence or following a period of sickness absence from work.
Welfare meetings play a useful role in absence management procedures, helping to identify issues relating to an employee’s absence at an early stage. Employee sickness absence can negatively impact operations, while employers are also under a duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their staff. This requires employers to take a proactive approach to absence management.
In this guide for employers, we examine the role of the welfare meeting at work, from what this is and how this differs to a medical capability meeting, to what type of welfare meeting questions need to be asked — not only to help support an employee’s recovery but, where appropriate, to facilitate a speedier return to the workplace.
What is a welfare meeting at work?
Employees who are off work sick through either illness or injury for more than 4 weeks may be considered on long-term sick leave. At this stage, it’s prudent to arrange a welfare meeting. This meeting can be used to help you gain a better understanding of the employee’s current health situation, to establish how long they’re likely to be absent from work, how likely they’re going to be able to perform their job role on their return, and what steps can be taken to support them.
Where an employee is repeatedly off work sick with a recurring condition, or for different ailments, a welfare meeting can also prove to be a useful tool in establishing what steps can be taken to minimise these absences and to support the employee’s wellbeing. Holding a welfare meeting at work can often help to get to the root cause of any absence issues, especially when it comes to work-related stress, and to address any problems before they become too entrenched.
Having robust procedures in place in the context of recurring or long-term sick leave is vital to discharging your statutory duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of your employees. Providing suitable support for an employee suffering from ongoing illness or injury is also vital to the success of your business. Any failure to put in place measures to help an employee in their return to work, or in performing their job role, is likely to lead to increased rates of absenteeism and even, in some cases, the loss of valuable members of staff.
How should a welfare meeting at work be arranged?
At the point at which a welfare meeting is deemed appropriate, the employee should be notified in writing to advise them of the meeting, with sufficient notice to make arrangements to attend. Depending on the reason for their absence(s), holding the meeting in the workplace may feel uncomfortable for them. It’s recommended that the employee be given the option to attend the welfare meeting at work, at home or at a neutral venue.
In some cases, depending on the severity of their condition, they may need more time to recover, although you could agree to conduct the meeting remotely. In either case, whether the meeting is to be held face-to-face or via video link, this must be held in private, although the employee may want to be accompanied for moral support, for example, by a trusted colleague. As a welfare meeting is relatively informal, you’re not legally obligated to allow an employee to be accompanied, but it’s advised to accommodate any such reasonable requests.
The employee should be informed in advance of the purpose of the meeting, providing them with reassurance that this is not in any way designed to force them back into work, nor to discipline them for being off work, but rather solely intended to support them.
An outline of the issues to be discussed should also be explained to the employee in writing, for example, the nature and extent of their ill health, any medical prognosis given, whether treatment is needed, and what steps can be taken to support them on their return to work. It can even be worth stating that the employee is missed at work, and that the meeting is an opportunity for you to offer your support in their recovery process.
What welfare meeting questions should be asked?
Knowing how to effectively lead a welfare meeting at work, and what questions to ask, will go a long way to ensuring that the meeting is productive and supportive.
Where a fit note has been provided by an employee’s GP, this can be used to form a starting point for your discussions. However, a temporary change to the usual 7-day rule, to allow GP’s to focus on the Covid booster rollout, means that workers can take 28 days off sick without needing a note. It may therefore be worth waiting until a fit note has been provided before arranging a welfare meeting. This will provide an anticipated prognosis period, or indicate whether and when a further review will be needed if the employee is likely to continue to be unfit for work. If the employee is deemed potentially fit for work, the GP may have made recommendations as to what could benefit them on their return.
Whilst it’s difficult to predict how open and upfront an employee will be, where a degree of flexibility may be needed in your format, the following welfare meeting questions can be used to structure your conversation so that the most pertinent issues are covered:
- How’s your recovery progressing?
- What symptoms are you currently experiencing?
- Are you undergoing a course of treatment?
- If not, has a course of treatment been recommended?
- What’s the most recent prognosis from your doctor?
- How long do you think you’re likely to be off work?
- How do you feel about returning to work?
- Do you think you’ll be able to perform all aspects of your job role?
- Do you think you might need some support in performing your job role?
- What steps can we take to support you in your recovery?
- What steps can we take to support you in your return to work?
All welfare meeting questions should be approached sensitively. The employee may be feeling unwell or, at the very least, vulnerable and anxious. They may also feel uncomfortable discussing personal details about their condition, especially for those suffering from mental health issues. It’s therefore important to reassure them of the purpose of the meeting — to provide them with support — and to be empathic and understanding at all times. It’s also important to not be too formal in your approach when asking welfare meeting questions. The whole idea is to get an employee to open up, and not to feel interrogated or pressured.
How should a welfare meeting at work be followed up?
At the end of a welfare meeting at work, it’s important to put in place some form of action plan, whether this be the need for a further meeting to review the employee’s condition where the prognosis is unclear or, for those who may be fit for work, to think about what steps can be taken to support their return. A referral to an occupational health specialist may be needed to look at the requirements of the employee’s job role against their current limitations, and what adjustments can be made to their working conditions in the context of that role.
Provided the welfare meeting is well-led, this can be used to keep the lines of communication open, help to unlock any concerns and enable both parties to map out a way moving forward.
Ultimately, in cases where there’s little or no prospect of an employee making a full recovery in the foreseeable future, and they’re either unable to return to work or to perform their job role to the required standard, a more formal medical capability meeting will need to be arranged. In these circumstances, a welfare meeting, or any subsequent welfare meeting during which the issue of permanent incapacity is raised, can be used to discuss the issue of consent so that a medical report can be obtained from the employee’s GP or specialist.
Can you dismiss an employee following a welfare meeting?
An employee must never be dismissed or even given a written warning following a welfare meeting. This type of meeting should not be used as a means to terminate employment. It’s purpose is self-explanatory, designed solely to support the employee’s health and welfare.
Any failure to follow a fair dismissal procedure, and to act reasonably in all the circumstances, will leave you wide open to a claim for unfair dismissal. If the employee is suffering from a long-term health condition that falls within the definition of a disability, any dismissal may be treated as both automatically unfair and as unlawful discrimination. You may also be in breach of your duty to provide reasonable adjustments — such as amended duties, altered hours or workplace adaptations — to minimise any disadvantage that a disability is causing.
Differences between a welfare and medical capability meeting?
The purpose of a welfare meeting is in no way to penalise an employee for being unwell, but rather to provide you with some insight into their condition and recovery, and what steps can be taken by you to support their return to work. The aim of the meeting is to understand what issues an employee is facing, how these issues impact them, and what support is required to enable them to undertake their role effectively. It can also be used to consider if further medical evidence, or an opinion from an occupational health specialist, is necessary.
In contrast, a medical capability meeting is much more formal. Its’ purpose is to review the employee’s sickness record, and all medical evidence to date, and to make an assessment as to the likelihood of an employee returning to work within a reasonable timeframe — or sustaining an acceptable attendance level in cases of persistent short-term absences. The medical capability meeting is therefore designed to directly address any potential issue of permanent incapacity, which may result in a series of written warnings and dismissal.
Even though the welfare meeting is a fact-finding exercise, whilst a medical capability meeting is a mechanism used by employers to determine if an employee is no longer able to perform or adequately perform their job role, there may be some overlap in the nature of the discussions. For example, both meetings will inevitably cover the likelihood of recovery, the potential timescales involved, as well as any treatment and support options not yet explored. However, the overriding purpose behind the two types of meeting are entirely different.
Given that the purpose of a medical capability meeting is specifically aimed at determining whether or not an employee is likely to be able to return to work in the foreseeable future, with the possibility of dismissal in mind, the nature of any medical capability meeting questions are likely to be less exploratory and more direct. This is because a medical capability meeting will almost certainly have been preceded by a number of welfare meetings. However, dismissal should only ever be considered where all alternatives, including reasonable adjustments and suitable alternative employment, have been explored.
DavidsonMorris’ specialist HR consultants can help with all aspects of workforce management and engagement, including guidance on absence management procedures and policies. Working closely with our employment lawyers, we provide comprehensive advice on how to implement policies and best practice approaches to provide optimal support for your employees and maximise performance while minimising legal risk and operational disruption. For help and advice, speak to our experts.
Welfare meeting FAQs
What happens in a welfare meeting at work?
A welfare meeting at work will typically involve a discussion between the employer and employee as to the employees’ current health situation, their likely recovery period and what steps can be taken to support them on their return to work.
Can I be sacked at a welfare meeting?
You shouldn’t be sacked, or even receive a warning, at a welfare meeting. The purpose of this meeting is not designed to bring employment to an end, but to explore all possible options to support you in your job role.
Can I be sacked for being off sick with work-related stress?
If you’re no longer able to perform your job role because of stress you can be sacked, but the onus will be on your employer to show why reasonable adjustments couldn’t be made to support you in that role.
What is an informal welfare meeting?
An informal welfare meeting is typically a one-to-one between an employee and either their line manager, or someone from HR, to discuss any ongoing health problems and to see what support options are available to minimise any absences.
Last updated: 28 December 2021