We already talked about what the Bradford Factor is, and whether or not it's a fair method of absence management (our conclusion: it's not, don't use it).

The Bradford Factor implies that all employees are work-shy and ready to jump at any opportunity to get out of work. It starts from a position of suspicion, ready to impose disciplinary action as soon as there's an excuse. It’s designed to impose limits on absence, not to help employees overcome the issues that lead to their absences in the first place.

Putting it like that, it doesn’t really sound like the foundation of a healthy and supportive company culture, does it?

So let's look at the alternatives to the Bradford Factor, and identify a fairer way to track and measure employee absence.

Numerical alternatives to the Bradford Factor:

Lost Time Rate

The Lost Time Rate measures the percentage of total working time that has been lost due to absence, per employee. Here’s how it works:

Total absence in the chosen period divided by Total possible working time in the chosen period multiplied by 100 to get a percentage figure.  

As an example, a total absence of 96 hours in a possible 2,000 hours.  

96 / 2,000 = 0.048 x 100 = 4.8%

Management would decide which percentage triggers action on their part. This is a commonly used example, but is even more simplistic than the Bradford Factor, and again, doesn’t take into account any reasoning - just total working time lost. It’s rather dehumanising.  

Absence frequency rate

The Absence frequency rate is really just the other side of the Bradford Factor, and looks at the occurrences of absences per employee as a group (remember - the Bradford Factor implies that more occurrences of absence are harder to manage than fewer, irrespective of the total working time lost). You’d calculate it like this:

Occurrences of absence in the chosen period divided by total employees.

So for instance, you might have 10 employees in your team. Over the last month, Bob is off sick twice with a cold then a bad stomach, and Debbie is off once with a migraine. That’s 3 absences. 3 divided by 10 is 0.3, or 30%.  

Imagine it over a year. You could have 16 absences for the same amount of people. 16 divided by 10 is 1.6 and you’ve got 160%.

It’s a high number, but what does it mean? How does it compare to the company average? How about the national average? Is one person skewing the number while everyone else is never off? There’s too many unknowns in this one to be a helpful alternative.  

Consolidated approach

You could consult the above two methods and the Bradford Factor itself all together, to paint a picture of how disruptive absence is for your company. The data can be somewhat useful, at least for identifying problem areas. But we don’t think they should be used to outsource decision-making from management.

Both of the figures above show an overview of general absence within a company, but don’t provide much insight other than that. They don’t address the underlying issues.  

And for teams that aren't massive and spread-out, you should just know if absence is an issue without needing a numerical value attached. If not, are you really being observant enough?

Non-statistical alternatives to the Bradford Factor

Consider the causes of absence

Complex rules and strict discipline aren’t always the right way to approach worker absence. Punishing those who are frequently absent isn't going to fix the underlying issues that cause them to miss work. Sure, some workers might just be idle and careless - more likely in low-paid jobs where they don’t feel valued or challenged - or something else might be going on.

It could be:

  • A hidden disability.
  • A long-term illness requiring multiple, unexpected visits to the doctor.
  • A family member that needs taking care of.
  • An ongoing legal dispute requiring time in court.
  • A mental health issue.
  • Problems with the commute like unreliable train service.
  • Working times that don't sync up with the workers' sleep patterns (chronotype) causing lateness and increased likelihood of illness.
  • Stress due to workload.
  • Problems with other colleagues e.g. harassment or bullying.

There could be loads of other reasons, too, that the Bradford Factor or other numerical measurement wouldn't be sympathetic to.

So rather than performing a detailed employee-by-employee analysis involving numbers and complicated methodologies, we’d propose something different.  

A fairer alternative

Managers could circulate an anonymous, confidential survey from their team instead, to get a better understanding of the reasons behind their absences. As well as this, it could investigate other cultural, social and environmental issues in the workplace.

How are they feeling? Are we doing enough to support them in getting to work? Would more flexible, remote work be a better option?

With this, management could take action on the issues within the workplace, and provide support for the outside factors. This is a much more positive approach than disciplinary action, and the team as a whole is more likely to benefit.

Likely outcomes of this approach could be:

  • Increased morale
  • Employee loyalty
  • Happier management
  • Increased productivity

It wouldn't be a free pass for someone to take the mick. By talking to your workers you'd know who was genuine and who just fancied a duvet day (some companies even provide a one-off duvet day per year as an employee benefit!)

The thing with the numerical measurements is that it's based on thresholds. Once a threshold has been passed, the chosen action is taken. But those thresholds are completely arbitrary - chosen by management, based on their judgement. So if judgement is needed in the first place, why can’t it be used for individual absence cases?

Disciplinary action could still be taken eventually. Or if someone has low morale because they don't want to be there, sit down and have the talk with them. It might be time for them to look elsewhere. Be proactive and understand what your employees are dealing with, in work and in life. Not only will you reduce your absence rate, you might end up with a nicer workplace - for everyone.

Photo by Henrik Dønnestad on Unsplash