No, it’s not a West Yorkshire-based TV talent show. You’ll hear the Bradford Factor crop up in HR discussions about staff absence. But its origins, method, and implications aren't well understood.

Here’s what you need to know about this controversial measure of staff absence.

We'll start with the nuts and bolts of it, then tell you why it's a load of crap (well, it's better not to beat around the bush with these things).

What does Bradford Factor mean?

The Bradford Factor theorises that different absences have different costs - not just in days and hours.

For example, if you know someone is going to be off work for a whole week for, say, a hospital visit, you can plan for it. You can arrange cover or split their workload between other employees. But when someone take a single day off, by calling in sick ten minutes before their shift, you can't plan around this, it's more disruptive.

Someone with a recurring and unpredictable pattern of short absences are the worst because of the time spent juggling their responsibilities around. For project-based businesses it's inconvenient, but for smaller service businesses where you need the right number of people to serve demand, it can potentially be quite harmful.

The Bradford Factor score was created in an attempt to measure and the impact of absences on a business.

Rumous says it was developed at the Bradford University School of Management in the 1980s. But as far as we're aware this hasn't been proven. Journalists have sought to clarify this from Bradford University but with no success.

Bradford Factor calculator.

There are two figures that go into the Bradford formula; S and D.

S is the number of separate absences the employee’s had in total. (So a single day off would be 1, and a full week off would also be 1.)

D is the total number of days they’ve had off.

So an employee’s Bradford Score (B) is calculated as follows:  S x S x D = B

Once you've got a score you can compare employees as if they are numbers, maybe rank them. You can decide what you are going to do with the number, look at trigger points, work out if you want to take any action.

Let's take a look at a few examples to see how it works.

Example Bradford Factor scores

In the last year, Alex has been off sick twice. Once was for 4 days, the other was for 5. You'd calculate her Bradford facor score as: 2 x 2 = 4, then 4 x 9 = 36.

And in the last year, Sam has been away from work six times, each a single day at a time, so 6 days of absence in total. We’d calculate his Bradford score as: 6 x 6 = 36, then 36 x 6 = 216.

So even though Alex spent more days off work, when you crunch it into a Bradford Factor calculator and Sam ends up with a much higher score - he comes out looking worse.

As we’re dealing with multiplication, the results can be pretty high, going into the thousands for those with high instances of absence.

What is a good Bradford Factor score?

This is kind of a subjective area. There's a huge range of scores and you'll need to consider what's appropriate for your business. Different companies are going to set different parameters, different scales with trigger points.

Here’s a typical example of a scale with trigger points that you might see in use.

  • 0 - 99: No concern
  • 99 - 199: Action required (verbal warning)  
  • 200 - 399: Disciplinary action (written warning)  
  • 400 - 600: Serious disciplinary action (final written warning)  
  • 600+ : Dismissal

There’s no national agreed scale - it has to be decided by management and HR based on what they think is acceptable, and what isn't.

That is, if they decide to use the Bradford Factor at all - it's just one option for absence management.

There's no law against it, it's just a formula.

But no, it's not fair.

No, no, no.

We don't think the Bradford Factor is fair. We know in general HR software supports it but we don't in Timetastic, and don't plan to.

Here's why.

We get why people use it, it’s simple, it's easy. We all love a good stat to help justify our decisions.

But it’s a mathamatical formula, it doesn't and can’t take into account the reasons behind anyone's absence, or how to manage them. It's not human.

It takes no account of the reality of life. It's literally heartless and crude. Compassion and understanding are necessary for a healthy business with a positive company culture, you won't find that in the Bradford Factor.

Sickness should never be a disciplinary offence.

How it can go wrong

Let's look at an example.

Take someone with a long-term medical condition. Imagine they have one or two unpredictable visits to hospital each month, this will give them a high Bradford Factor score. Your HR software flags them for discipline. Really? OK they have a large total number of days off, but they have a long-term medical condition, and you'd probably be aware of it anyway.

And they might be an absolute superstar. And now you treat them with suspicion, getting a disciplinary record for something out of their control.

What kind of culture is that promoting?

Years ago, I was a team manager in a call centre. They were using the Bradford Factor. One of my team ended up with a massive score because she had to take regular time off to care for her disabled sister. HR presented the league table, the table of highest Bradford Factor scores - and higher management saw her as a lazy slacker. I had to run her disciplinary hearings, while thinking to myself, "this isn't her fault at all!". (You won't be surprised to hear the culture was pretty awful, and the place has now closed.)

Should you use the Bradford Factor?

The Bradford Factor goes against what we believe to be essential parts of a healthy company culture. Flexibility, compassion and understanding aren't just the morally right way to do things. They guarantee staff happiness, health, and loyalty, which leads to long-term business success.

So no, don't use it.

Public opinion of the Bradford Factor?

Doesn't take much digging on social media to get a sense of how people feel about it. And this comes with a word of warning; even if you use other metrics and considerations alongside the Bradford factor, the mere fact that you calculate it will be a black mark against your credability and culture. If your team know you use it, they'll hate you for it.

Bradford Factor alternatives

Fortunately there are alternatives to the Bradford Factor, and we'd encourage you to read and incorporate them into a healthy and compassionate system of managing absence.

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.

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