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Bradford Factor & Managing Absence

The enormous changes to patterns of work caused by the coronavirus pandemic have led employers to review almost all aspects of their businesses. With entire workforces logging on and working from home, and a return to normality not yet on the horizon, your organisation may be looking at ways that it can monitor staff behaviour and absences, both remotely and in the workplace. You may have noticed an increase in the number of employees calling in sick for short periods, or simply feel that you have less control over your employees.

If you are redesigning your absence management policies then read on, as there are some important points to observe and equally, pitfalls to avoid.


What is the Bradford factor in HR?

The Bradford Factor is a mathematical formula that has been in use since the 1980s as a way of calculating and comparing staff absences using a ‘factor’. It is said to have been developed by a team at the University of Bradford School of Management, hence the name.

Employers had explained that they felt that their businesses were more adversely affected by frequent, short absences amongst their workforce, than by single, longer periods. The latter are arguably easier to plan for, and medically to understand. There was also a school of thought that wanted to incentivise employees who kept turning out through thick and thin.

The formula was developed in response to these ways of thinking, and is as follows: “the number of unrelated absence periods squared x the total number of days’ absent = the Bradford Factor”.

This is often shown as S² x D = B. The total number of days of absence (D) can be across any reference period, but is usually one year.

For example, if employee A has ‘flu and is off for 5 days, and some time later they have a sore throat and are off for 1 day, this is two periods of absence: 2 x 2 x 6 = 24

If employee B has terrible arthritic pain that flares up from time to time, resulting in ten separate absence of 1 day, their score would be 10 x 10 x 10 = 1000

It is immediately obvious from these two examples that, even though employee B only has four more days of absence in total than employee A, their Bradford Factor is significantly higher.


How is the Bradford factor used in the workplace?

HR departments have traditionally used the Bradford Factor method as it is relatively simple and easy to monitor. You can set the software to send you an alert whenever certain trigger points are reached.

For example, in your organisation you could decide the following trigger points:

Employers will explain to staff that they use the Bradford Factor and keep employees informed of their scores at regular intervals. Employees will then know that they are approaching certain ‘thresholds’ and will supposedly be discouraged from taking unnecessary sick days, sometimes known as ‘duvet days’.

The fact that the Bradford Factor is one number makes it easy to understand and communicate to employees, and this is seen as a strength – everyone knows where they are with the system and it applies equally to all employees.

However, this ‘one size fits all’ approach can also be a fundamental weakness of the Bradford Factor system. It is now clear in law and public life that treating everyone the same does not necessarily lead to a fair outcome for all.

In the example given earlier of two employees, A and B, the contrast between their scores was dramatic. Even though employee B only had four more days of absence than employee A across a whole year, their Bradford Factor is over forty times higher than that of employee B. This does not seem fair.

If you then consider that employee B’s arthritis could in law be considered a disability, as a long-term condition that has a substantial impact on a person’s ability to carry out normal day to day activities, it is clear that there is a problem. By applying the Bradford Factor policy to employee B the employer is putting their disabled employee at a disadvantage, and is committing an act of unlawful indirect discrimination.

The same analysis could be applied to carers (who are more likely to be women) or employees with mental health or medical conditions, or employees with family members in those categories. Especially during the recent lockdown, but also currently as grandparents or other vulnerable family members may not be available to assist with childcare, employers should be cautious about using the Bradford Factor to penalise parents who are taking short absences to manage childcare.

Therefore, if you work at an organisation where the Bradford Factor is used, you are strongly advised to check employee records. It is likely that you should amend the ‘trigger’ points for specific employees where you know there are extra considerations.


Are employers allowed to use the Bradford factor?

It is for employers to manage their businesses how they see fit, and the Bradford Factor is just one way of monitoring and managing staff absences.

However, employers must still be careful that the way that they use the Bradford Factor does not lead them to commit unlawful indirect discrimination.

The Bradford Factor’s perceived strength is that it treats all employees the same – each employee’s absences are subject to the same mathematical formula. This can also be a weakness though. The law requires employers to take account of differences between its employees, for example, the reasonable adjustments that have to be made to ensure that disabled people can do their jobs, or the needs of carers for greater flexibility at certain times of the day.


Monitoring & managing absence

Fortunately, there are other approaches to monitoring and managing absences and these are discussed below.

One of the criticisms of the Bradford Factor is that it is reactive rather than pro-active. This can mean that a problem has escalated unnecessarily by the time HR is involved. A good way to avoid this is to set a caring tone within the organisation by holding back to work meetings with employees to try to understand why they were off work, if they are ready to come back and if there is anything the organisation can do to assist the process.

Another key consideration in 2020, and for the foreseeable future, is that employees must absolutely not be encouraged to come to work if they have symptoms of corona-virus. It is well-known that for many adults, symptoms can be negligible or fairly easy to cope with, but that they may even so be infectious. If employees feel that they have to come to work with symptoms because otherwise their Bradford Factor will rise, the health of everyone in the organisation is put at risk.

Equally, if your employee is are home-working, but needs to take time off to attend a test, or take a dependent for a test, or to look after a dependent while a family member takes a test, in the interests of public health, that employee should not be discouraged or even scared to do the right thing.

In the longer-term, taking a more compassionate approach to employee absence can pay off financially for your organisation. For example, if employees are in a rush to return to work, they may return to work too early and end up taking even more time off than they would have if they had allowed themselves time to recover properly initially.

Employees will also be more likely to feel loyal to the organisation and have good working relationships with colleagues where there is less of a blame culture and more emphasis on mutual support and understanding. Managers and HR professionals should be encouraged to talk to members of staff who are struggling, with a view to providing assistance before the problem escalates.


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Bradford factor FAQs

How do you calculate the Bradford Factor?

You calculate the Bradford Factor by entering values in the following equation: the number of unrelated absence periods squared x the total number of days’ absent = the Bradford Factor This is often shown as S² x D = B. The total number of days of absence (D) can be across any reference period, but is usually one year. For example, if employee A has ‘flu and is off for 5 days, and some time later they have a sore throat and are off for 1 day, this is two periods of absence in one year: 2 x 2 x 6 = 24

What is a good Bradford Factor score?

A good Bradford Factor score is basically as low as possible. The effect of the formula is to, relatively, penalise frequent, short periods of absence. If you take two longer periods of absence in the course of a calendar year, your score will be much lower than if you had taken ten short periods. If your organisation uses the Bradford Factor system then you should probably try to keep your score to below 50, as this would not be likely to trigger any action on the part of your employer.

Why is it called Bradford Factor?

The Bradford Factor is said to be called this because it was developed by the University of Bradford School of Management. It is a simple mathematical tool for monitoring periods of employee absence, but has proved controversial in many workplaces because of its ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Last updated: 17 August 2020

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