Lesson: Mental Illness and American Business


Students at the University of Colorado Boulder Leeds School of Business are studying accounting, finance, management, marketing, and…mental health?  That’s right.  Mental health is a business issue, being taken seriously in the workplace and also at the business school on the CU flagship campus.

Loss of productivity, absenteeism, employee turnover, workplace accidents and disability: these are just a few of the costly results from mental illness in the workplace. The impact of mental illness to the U.S. economy is an estimated $300 billion a year, with business absorbing half of that, as one in five adults struggles with mental illness in any given year. The cost of substance misuse, a behavioral health problem, is about the same.

Mental health is an issue that has become forefront for healthy businesses and individuals alike, says Cory B. Cunningham, PhD, Leeds faculty.  “Leeds prides itself on producing career ready graduates so we know it’s necessary to incorporate mental health into the curriculum,” says Cunningham. “By working with the National Mental Health Innovation Center, we are able to provide our students with the opportunity to apply business and communication skills and concepts to the real-world issue of mental health in the workplace.”

Beginning in the 2016-17 school year, undergraduate students participate in a required semester-end case competition centered around mental health issues. This year, Johns Manville, a global manufacturing company, has partnered as a corporate sponsor for the competition, with executives serving as judges and providing a cash prize to the winning team.

Photo: The winning team in the Leeds 2017 Fall semester case competition celebrates with prize money from corporate sponsor Johns Manville. The students created a business plan for their university to create a workable, cost-effective mental health system and culture. (Left to right: Kimberly Young, Grant Tecson, Madison Lolicata, Regina Scott and Dylan Turner.)


The undergraduate students in the Fall 2017 semester challenge were charged with developing a plan to improve mental health services and combat mental illness stigma on their own campus, keeping in mind that the University is one of the largest employers in the state of Colorado. The teams defined the problems the campus faces, identified the stakeholders and then created a proposal and implementation plan within a given budget, as they would do for other business challenges.

“More and more, businesses are understanding that when their employees struggle with mental health they aren’t at their best, their most productive and it impacts the bottom line. Yet, managers often don’t know what to do,” says Peggy Hill, deputy director, NMHIC.  “Leeds is taking a leadership role among business schools in addressing this where we think it can have a great impact – during a student’s academic career, preparing these future leaders to enter the workforce with skills and understanding to address this challenge.”

Cunningham agrees, “The impact of bringing mental health to the table of discussion has been profound for our students both as future business leaders and healthier, more mindful individuals.”

As they incorporate mental health into business curriculum, Leeds faculty proposed that students:

  • Be able to recognize stress and mental health issues in themselves and others.
  • Be able to recognize qualities of well-being in themselves and others.
  • Know and be prepared to implement a series of steps that they can take to support mental health and well-being among themselves and others.
  • Learn skills to lead organizations with a focus on mental health and well-being as an important contributor to productivity, efficiency, safety and creativity.
  • Learn skills to lead organizations with ethical principles and practices.

The partnership with Leeds has grown in its second year, from its early steps of sponsoring an international MBA Case Competition hosted by Leeds, which also featured a mental health storyline.  Besides the undergraduate case competition, mental health has been incorporated into multiple ac academic courses in traditional lines of study.

The work with Leeds is part of NMHIC’s focus on mental health in everyday life. NMHIC believes in an all-hands on deck mentality when it comes to mental wellness, with support coming from the places where we live, work and play as the way our society successfully approached mental health.


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