Supporting Return to Work After Suicide Attempt

Return-to-work planning is an important aspect of an organization’s response to a colleague’s suicide attempt. Every situation is different and warrants appropriate care and attention, especially after an event as serious and life-threatening as a suicide attempt. The supervisor, employee, human resources specialist and health care providers will ideally work together to plan the employee’s return to work.

Respect and Privacy

A respectful approach takes into account the distressed employee’s preferences, and right to privacy. Just after a suicide attempt, an employee will likely need time to recover from the sequence of events that led up to the attempt. They may not be ready to speak or meet people, and this should be respected.

Making every effort to uphold privacy is very important. After a suicide attempt, a colleague may feel deep shame and embarrassment. Information should be shared on a need-to-know basis, and should be contained as much as possible. Details should not be given to the wider work group other than what is absolutely essential.

When a suicide attempt has occurred at the work place or is public knowledge, it may be discussed more openly; however, it is critical to verify the facts and details before disseminating information at work. In addition, the individual who made the suicide attempt should be consulted about what is being shared about them, prior to the sharing. Their wishes should be respected as much as possible, while also taking into account the wellbeing of colleagues who may be very concerned for the colleague in distress.

Support for Impacted Colleagues

While you may not be able to share details with colleagues, support should be offered to those who know about the suicide attempt. If only a few people know, you may check in with them one-on-one or in a small group format, if it is a close working group with a good level of trust. It is helpful to ask how they are doing, to offer time off from work if needed, and to see what would feel most useful. You may explore if they would like time to be together, perhaps in a more comfortable, less formal location, or if they would be interested in having a mental health expert to support them as they process recent events. This can be arranged through the Duty of Care program.

Each situation is unique and should be considered on a case-by-case basis. It may be useful to speak to a mental health provider to think through what makes the most sense.

Return to Work

Typically, an individual who makes a suicide attempt has seen one or more health care providers.

  1. Ask the individual if they would be ok if you speak with their doctors to plan their return to work. In many cases, health care providers can share recommendations on how to best support the individual as they re-enter the workplace. A phone call, followed up by an email, is a humane way to approach this sensitive topic to prepare the employee in distress for email communications.
  2. Respect right to privacy. The employee has the right to privacy, which means the right to refuse consent to speak to their providers.
  3. Provide support and guidance to the supervisor as they work with the employee to make a plan to return to work. Guide the supervisor to take a caring, thoughtful approach to conversations about what would be most supportive.
  4. Encourage the supervisor to respect the distressed employee’s wishes as much as possible. Some employees may ask that colleagues don’t gather around them when they return and ask for little attention. Help the supervisor to set the tone for the employee’s return to work by relaying preferences to staff, ideally in an in-person meeting.
  5. Be flexible. Upon returning to work, it is not uncommon for the employee in distress to feel differently once they see their colleagues again who may, organically, hug them or cry when they see them. Allow flexibility, comfort, and care throughout this process.
  6. Check in regularly with the employee in distress. Ask how their return is going. Maintain a supportive and caring presence.
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