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AKST: Depression often behind missed work, school

Published: Thursday, May 15, 2014 11:40 p.m. CST • Updated: Friday, May 16, 2014 8:27 a.m. CST

The pesky part about obsessions is that even when you resolve to let them go, sometimes they won’t let you go.

It’s a bit much to call this an obsession, but here’s what I’m gnawing on (and what’s gnawing on me), even though my semester grades are turned in.

It bothers me how many students missed so many classes, enough so that it negatively affected their grades in some cases.

A typical college semester is 16 weeks. I give students enough free absences to equal two weeks’ worth of classes, usually either four or six class periods. Those are the freebies, and I consider myself flexible and fair.

“In journalism (and all work), regular, punctual attendance is mandatory,” I write on course syllabi. However, “sometimes emergencies or serious illnesses arise so if you must miss class, please notify me in advance (just like you would with any job).”

If students exceed the freebies, they lose a letter grade (e.g., a B becomes a C). They know this. It’s on the course syllabus distributed the first day of class and posted online, and there are numerous verbal reminders throughout the semester.

In spite of that, at least 10 students this semester earned lower grades because of absenteeism. A couple of students had 15 or more absences. It wasn’t only missing classes, but also missing quizzes and deadlines that happened at those classes.

I realize there are jobs where as long as work is done correctly and on time, nobody really cares when or if you show up. I’ve had a job like that, but I don’t want students to embrace that mindset.

Absenteeism (as defined by Forbes magazine) is “an employee’s intentional or habitual absence from work.” Its causes are unsurprising. Burnout, stress, child or elder care, job hunting, and bullying/harassment all contribute.

The main cause, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, is depression.

Circadian, a workforce think tank, recently published research titled “Absenteeism: The Bottom Line Killer.” Absenteeism costs about $3,600 a year for each hourly worker and $2,650 a year for salaried employees, the report said.

Direct costs can be attributed to many factors, such as wages paid to absent employees, high-cost replacement workers (overtime pay for other employees and/or temporary workers) and administrative costs of managing absenteeism.

Those are direct consequences, according to the research. Indirect consequences might be worse: “Poor quality of goods/services resulting from overtime fatigue or understaffing, reduced productivity, excess manager time (dealing with discipline and finding suitable employee replacements), safety issues (inadequately trained employees filling in for others, rushing to catch up after arriving as a replacement, etc.) [and] poor morale among employees who have to ‘fill in’ or do extra work to cover absent coworkers.”

Labor experts are quick to point out that quantifying absenteeism with precision is difficult. Rare, but curiously refreshing, is an employee who says, “Yeah, boss, I didn’t come in Tuesday ‘cause I just wasn’t up for it, ya know?”

I posed the question as to whether I should keep taking attendance (and having sanctions) on Facebook. Comments were mixed but trended toward yes.

I would really like to hear from employers about how serious (or perhaps overstated?) absenteeism is, and whether my course policy would help combat it. My contact information follows.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as a board member for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, www.ninaonline.org. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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