No, it’s not a West Yorkshire-based TV talent show. The Bradford Factor is actually something you’ll hear about in HR discussions about staff absenteeism.
But its origins, method, and implications aren't well understood.
So we’re going to tell you everything you need to know about this controversial measure of staff absence.
We'll start with the nuts and bolts of it, then we’ll tell you why it's a load of crap. (We don’t beat around the bush with this one!)
What is the Bradford Factor?
The Bradford Factor is a numerical score based on the frequency and duration of employee absences. Companies use it to calculate how much of an impact someone’s absence is having on the business.
Some companies use it as a deciding factor in whether or not to punish someone for being off too much – through sick days and other unplanned absences.
It's calculated by multiplying the number of absences over a set period (often 3 or 6 months), by their total number of days of absence.
It’s also sometimes known as the Bradford Formula, the Bradford Score, or the Bradford Index.
Rumours suggest 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 it’s never been confirmed.
Why do companies use the Bradford Factor?
The Bradford Factor basically theorises that different absences cost the business more than simply lost working hours / days.
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 can be 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 really be quite harmful.
So the problem it seeks to solve is definitely real – but the way it goes about that is pretty poor, we think. We’ll explain more below. First, though – how does it actually work?
Bradford Factor calculator
It’s fairly simple to calculate the actual score. Here’s how it looks:
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.) It usually covers a 52-week period.
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, and maybe rank them if you like. You can decide what you’re going to do with the number, look at trigger points, and work out if you want to take any action.
Example Bradford Factor scores
Let's take a look at a few examples to see how it works.
In the last year, Alex has been off sick twice. Once was for 4 days, the other was for 5. The number of spells of absence is 2, and it’s 9 days in total.
You'd calculate her Bradford factor score as: 2 x 2 x 9 = 36.
And in the last year, Sam has been away from work six times, each a single day at a time, so an absence of 6 days in total. We’d calculate his Bradford score as: 6 x 6 x 6 = 216.
So even though Alex took more days of sick leave, when you crunch it into a Bradford Factor calculator 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 and scales. They’ll have different opinions on what counts as a trigger point for taking action.
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 nationally 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 in the first place - it's just one option for absence management, of course.
Is the Bradford Factor legal, and is it fair?
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 many different HR software providers support it but we don't at Timetastic, and we don't plan to.
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 mathematical 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 a heartless, crude way for HR departments to reduce people to numbers on a spreadsheet.
But compassion and understanding are necessary for a healthy business with a positive company culture, and you won't find that in the Bradford Factor.
Sickness should never be a disciplinary offence.
How the Bradford Factor 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 team flags them for disciplinary action.
OK, they’ve had 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.)
Matt Hancock wondered aloud recently about why Brits "soldier on" into work when sick, infecting others. As well as inadequate statutory sick pay, here's a column about another reason: a strange little formula called the "Bradford Factor". https://t.co/qwgRL3waBO pic.twitter.com/HTXvywFUCs— Sarah O'Connor (@sarahoconnor_) December 16, 2020
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.
There hasn’t been any large-scale studies about how effective it actually is, either. It’s not really possible to prove it’s poor for companies for that reason. But on the flipside...
There’s no evidence that the Bradford Factor has a positive effect on companies’ ability to manage absenteeism.
Seeing as nobody knows who invented it, it’s weird that it’s widely used in the first place. It’s a cultural thing; an outdated relic of a ruthless corporate era that belongs in the past.
Public opinion of the Bradford Factor
It 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 credibility and culture. If your team know you use it, they'll hate you for it.
How on earth are we over a year and a half into a pandemic and we STILL haven’t fixed sick pay? And STILL haven’t scrapped punitive sickness policies like the Bradford Factor [where you get disciplined if you’re off for more than two or three instances of sickness]??— ‘Marcie’ (@just_to_join_in) September 12, 2021
Incredible that the discredited Bradford factor is still being used. An imprecise sledgehammer that always cracked the wrong nuts.— Dave Jones 🎭💙💙💙 (@davedhjones) August 18, 2021
"We welcome applications from people with disabilities. What's that? Oh yeah, we use the Bradford Factor. Even when you have a chronic illness. No, we don't offer part time work. You need to talk to HR about how much time you're taking off. What do you mean, it won't get better?"— Finn Longman (@FinnLongman) August 5, 2021
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 can then 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.
Verdict: don’t use.
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, Mo 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 absence score, but what does it mean in context? 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.
Verdict: don’t use.
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?
Verdict: don’t use.
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 people for frequent absences 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 an unreliable train service.
- Working times that don't sync up with the workers' sleep patterns (their 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 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.