Returning to work after attempted suicide

By Asha Tomlinson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/04/2003

When a person survives suicide, seeks help and is working towards rehabilitation, returning to work is part of the healing process.

But, successful work return depends on a supportive environment and there are many cases where it’s not provided, says Wolfgang Zimmermann, executive director of the National Institute of Disability Management and Research.

Once back at work, suicide survivors may find co-workers and even their own supervisor foster judgmental attitudes towards them.

To get over these attitudinal barriers commitment must come from the top, says Zimmermann. Management needs to assess their organization to determine whether they have created an inclusive environment for those who have attempted suicide or have other mental health problems.

“What it comes down to is valuing the individual, recognizing the contribution that the worker can make or are you simply saying goodbye, good riddance, don’t bother us until you’re 100 per cent because we have no interest in making any type of accommodations.”

He says a number of organizations are moving in the direction of setting up a corporate value statement that makes clear the company’s vision on dealing with mental health issues. The statement should demonstrate, “a significant shift in attitude and approach towards ability versus disability.”

It starts with remodelling of the business’s infrastructure that includes having someone on board whose sole responsibility is to facilitate return to work, he says.

Peter Sholdas, a disability management consultant for Work Return Inc., says employers need to be well versed in what’s going on with their employee. They have to keep up-to-date with their medical status and situation. They should also be educated on the person’s mental disability to fully understand what they’re suffering from. In terms of accommodations, Sholdas says providing a supportive environment should incorporate job development and job coaching.

“Providing them with followup support or follow-along support while doing their job...hoping they would achieve a sense of social independence and well-being,” he says.

And the return to work must be gradual, Sholdas says, the person will want to ease themselves back into the work environment starting with two to three hours per day possibly.

“You’re not just going to throw somebody back into a 35 to 40 hour workweek...it’s similar to someone whose physical tolerance is down and they have to be built up. In this case mental tolerances are down and they also need to be built up.”

Tom Stevens, former CEO of MacMillan Bloedel — one of the largest producers of softwood lumber and market pulp — best exemplified a shift in attitude towards mental illness, says Zimmermann. In a past interview with CBC, Stevens said, “Why is it that when you burn out a 200-horse power motor in the pump mill, we go and re-spool the motor because it’s too expensive to replace it. Yet when we burn out a worker, we chuck them in the scrap heap.” This comment stuck with Zimmermann because it came from a senior executive.

Stevens’ commitment to mental disability went a long way in the company even though he’s no longer there. Although the company was bought out by the Weyerhaeuser Company, late last year they introduced a framework for a return-to-work program. Every operational division is required to have a disability management program in place by January 2004 and individual unit managers will be held accountable.

“Those are some very clear elements that can be prescribed, and where leadership can be found,” Zimmermann says. “The key is to provide whatever support is necessary for the individual.”

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