Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, mental health was viewed as a workplace challenge waiting in the wings, but it’s moving to centre stage for many employers as companies across the globe prepare to mark a second World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10 in the clutches of this public health crisis.

“The pandemic has created dramatic changes not only in how we live but also in how we work,” says Maria Fraga, associate vice-president of global benefits and wellness at Manulife Financial Corp. “We’re all working from home and that has a significant impact on anybody’s mental health which, in turn, has longer-term impacts on our physical health as well. Employers focusing on employees’ well-being — their physical health and mental health has got to be a top priority.”

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Over the course of the pandemic, Manulife has launched a host of programs in support of employee well-being, including mental-health resources and employer benefits, a virtual health and wellness program, based on four themes: healthy activities, mindfulness, eating well and gratitude. It’s also offering staff additional personal days off in 2021 and 2022, as well as a monthly Friday off for the last four months of 2021 for employees to learn, rest and recharge. And Manulife’s made investments in learning and recognition; hosting well-being guest speakers and a virtual workplace talent show.

Well-being programs are an integral part of the employee value proposition, notes Fraga. “It’s a great asset when you’re looking to recruit talent. These are unprecedented times and a time of high anxiety and employees are looking for an employer that values their overall well-being and has programs in place to support them.”

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Mental-health related issues are the No. 1 cause of long-term disability claims, representing more than 30 per cent of all claims, according to a 2020 report by Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada. Indeed, even before the pandemic, mental-health related LTD claims grew by 27 per cent between 2014 and 2019, noted the report. And further data by the organization showed a significant rise in the number of searches for mental-health practitioners by users on its health platform during the pandemic, says Dave Jones, the newly appointed president of Sun Life Health.

Meanwhile, a survey published by Sun Life this month found one in 10 Canadians have either left their job or are considering doing so over a gap between the mental-health support they want from their employer and what they’re currently receiving. “We see it as crucial for employers to have a mental-health strategy going forward as part of their business strategy,” he says.

Many of the insurer’s plan sponsor clients are introducing mental-health training for managers and senior leaders, which Jones says is a key component to any mental-health strategy. He adds that company leadership should be driving the discussion. When top leaders in the workplace talk about mental health, he says, they create space for employees to be their authentic selves and it builds a culture that’s psychologically safe, helping to dispel the stigma that often surrounds mental-health issues.

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It’s crucial to educate workplace leaders on how to recognize the signs that someone might be struggling and making them aware of the resources available, says Fraga, likening it to the oxygen mask protocol on an airplane. “If the mask falls down, you put on your mask first before helping someone else with theirs. Manulife encourages leaders to put the mask on first, take care of their own mental wellness so they can, in turn, provide and guide others to the resources they need.”

Sun Life is also seeing companies make changes to benefits plans to offer greater mental-health resources, says Jones, suggesting employers review the support tools they already have in place to ensure they include sufficient coverage. “For example, a typical benefits plan may include $500 for mental-health benefits but that would only cover maybe two to three sessions with a psychologist. It’s important to have benefits that can provide employees with enough for a full course of treatment so they can stay at work, stay productive and be engaged in day-to-day life.”

Read: Employers prioritizing mental health, permanent hybrid work 1.5 years into pandemic