What’s the Bradford Factor and how to use it today 

The Bradford Factor isn’t nearly as boring as it sounds. To start with, it’s at the root of an urban legend…

John Crowley • 
Bradford Factor

The Bradford Factor isn’t nearly as boring as it sounds. To start with, it’s at the root of an urban legend… see, already ‘not boring’ and we’re only two sentences in. Bradford, the unassuming West Yorkshire city—once a boomtown of the industrial revolution, with the comic-book-worthy nickname ‘Woolopolis’ on account of its central position in the world’s wool trade—has given the UK many things. The first ever free school dinners were served up in Bradford in 1907 (scotch broth, fruit tart, bread, and water, in case you were wondering). Some truly amazing cinema productions, the FA challenge cup, and the Brontë sisters all hail from Bradford. And as urban mythmakers and HR folklorists would have it, so does the Bradford Factor. It was—they say—named for the Bradford University School of Management where a 1980s research team first expressed a numerical formula to reflect the negative impact of frequent, short-term absences for employers. Except that none of that is true. Bradford University says that no such research ever took place, and nobody seems to know why it’s called the Bradford Factor at all… or, more to the point, why anyone would invent folk tales about HR diagnostic tools.   

While its origins are still a mystery, the formula and its uses have been passed down through decades of HR professionals. So, let’s get to know a little more about the *insert city of choice here* Factor.  

What’s the formula? 

This is the easy bit. The formula is: 
(S × S) × D = B  

or another way of writing it out is: 

S² × D = B 

where S = total number of instances of absence 

and D = total number of days/shifts of absence  

and B = the Bradford Factor (BF) score 

This is usually calculated over a 52-week period, with higher BF scores being less favourable.  

Let’s look at Bob as an example. Bob ‘called in sick’ 5 times in a year, and each time he took 2 days off (giving a total of 10 days absence) the calculation would be, (5 × 5) × 10 for a Bradford score of 250. Seems like a high score, right? That’s because the Bradford Factor is engineered to emphasise frequency of absences over and above the length of absences. It does it right there in the formula with S². But why? The theory is that frequent, short-term absences are much more disruptive to a business than infrequent, long absences, but more on that later. 

To show just how much the formula emphasises multiple absences, let’s look at Bob’s colleague Sheila. Sheila was only off sick once in a year, but she was off for a full month. The calculation for Sheila would be (1 × 1) × 30 for a Bradford score of 30. That’s a lovely low score by any standard (see the typical thresholds later in this article), even though Sheila was off work for 20 more days than Bob.  

That might sound illogical but remember that the Bradford Factor is a diagnostic tool for highlighting frequent, short-term absences, which make up most of the total absences, across all employees (80%), and are the most likely to be non-genuine. This makes them a bigger issue for employers than long-term absences.  

The Bradford Factor in action 

Things can get pretty heated at HR conventions—yes, that’s a thing—if you’re brave enough to bring up the Bradford Factor. Many HR professionals and employers love it and base every element of their absence reduction scheme around it. In fact, some organisations use it as a standalone basis for disciplinary action with pre-set triggers for certain actions like verbal warnings or even dismissal (we don’t recommend doing that… again, more on that later).  

Typical thresholds for action are:  
0-49 | No action needed. 

50-124 | Verbal Warning.  

125-399 | First Written Warning. 
400-649 | Final Written Warning 

650+ | Consider Dismissal 

For supporters of the Bradford Factor, it is an easily implemented tool that can eliminate human factors such a favouritism or prejudice, by applying the same consistent measure to everyone. It can be fully automated, with pre-defined trigger points for specified actions, which might otherwise go undetected. And when employees are aware that they’re being measured, it does seem to correlate with a reduction in absences. The UK prison service reported a 25% absence reduction in 2006, after using the Bradford Factor as part of a wider absence reduction scheme. Known as the ‘attendance score’, the system was tied to a sliding scale of action (much like the thresholds we’ve listed), with 300 staff being dismissed across all categories of sickness absence between 2003 and 2004. Meanwhile, in its 2022 Sickness Absence Policy, The Rotherham, Doncaster and South Humber NHS Foundation Trust state that employees should maintain a BF score of less than 80. If they hit the trigger of 80, then they must keep their BF score below 10 for a period of at least 6 months, or risk facing an employment hearing.  

Other organisations—and, if social media can be used as a reliable source, millions of employees—hate it. They think it’s counterproductive to business value and doesn’t belong in modern absence reduction schemes. Afterall, the 80s workplace was very different to most workplaces in the 2020s. This school of thought sees the Bradford Factor as a blunt and unforgiving instrument, wielded by organisations that don’t trust their workforce and that don’t look beyond the symptoms of absence to find the underlying cause. And while treating everyone the same might sound like a good idea in theory, the fact is that everyone isn’t the same.  

Let’s go back to Bob. You might have assumed that Bob was giving himself a few spur-of-the-moment ‘duvet’ days. But what if I told you that Bob was a single Dad, caring for a child who had intermittent but acute health issues? If he worked for an employer that implemented a sliding scale of action based on a standalone Bradford Score, Bob would be facing a first written warning and, possibly, other punitive measures.  

Finding some middle ground 

At SenseHR we’re neither lovers nor haters… more somewhere in between. Afterall, a hammer is a very useful tool, but it should be used responsibly, correctly, and as one part of a complete tool set. The same is true of the Bradford Factor. That’s why it’s so important that it’s used as part of a supportive and comprehensive absence scheme because alongside other data, metrics, and KPI, it can give useful insights into what’s going on within the organisation, as well as in the lives of the people who work there. 

A good HR system helps you to do exactly that. Instead of being used in isolation, Bradford Factor scores can exist as a single element in a wide-ranging and data-driven ecosystem. A pattern of rising scores can be used as an indicator for organisational problems such as burn-out, management issues, lack of engagement, environmental factors, or poor company culture. They can be flags for HR managers to talk to employees about their scores and the wider data, rather than triggers for disciplinary action. And we say ‘good’ HR system because legacy systems can spit out Bradford Factor scores for each employee, but they can’t compare that to the wider data patterns or intelligently apply it to a diverse workforce. They’re just not backed up by the database technology that can handle complex relationships.  

It’s the unplanned, last-minute nature of absence that makes it so disruptive and damaging to a business. And because 80% of absences are short term, you can begin to understand the importance of identifying and preventing them. Even more so when you learn that UK businesses lost £5.6 billion in 2019 due to non-genuine sickness absence. 

But for industries where last-minute sick days are more commonplace, HR software can be used to manage all types of absence compassionately and provide opportunities for positive, data-driven change. And great HR software can show trends in absence data and even offer predictive insights. On that basis organisations can plan for absence and begin to implement employee-centric measures like wellbeing and mental health days, or paid time-off for dependants. In industries that allow it, flexible working patterns can give staff time off for medical appointments and family emergencies as and when they need it, without affecting performance data.   

In fact, when the Bradford Factor is used to protect employees as well as the organisation, it can encourage open communication and build a healthier, more productive, and happier workplace… and a more valuable business too.  

Absence management means planning for absence 

Can you guess what I’m going to say? Yup, HR software can help you with absence management and planning.  

Self-serve features mean that employees can be given access to their own metrics and performance data, as well as being able to keep up to date with policies, training, and guidance. Time off requests and absence reporting are fast and simple and can be semi or even fully automated. Fit notes, reasons for illness, and self-certification documents can be stored and referenced by the employee and employer. And return-to-work interviews, which help managers to start a dialogue and maintain a supportive culture, can be easily scheduled and documented too.  

Training employees about the impact of absence, how the Bradford Factor is calculated, and how it will be used, within a mutually supportive ecosystem, can help to reduce absences and any feelings of distrust or resentment about being measured. With HR software, this kind of training can be automated and updated in accordance with the data and employee feedback.  

Absence reduction schemes that are managed within an HR software system can also keep your organisation on the right side of the law. For example, the Equality Act 2010 means that employers must tailor their actions to account for protected characteristics, like disabilities. Which means that the one-size-fits-all Bradford Factor could lead to legal action if used in isolation to recommend disciplinary action.   

The other side of the coin 

During the Covid-19 pandemic the UKs then health secretary Matt Hancock asked the question, “Why in Britain do we think it’s acceptable to soldier on and go into work if you have flu symptoms or a runny nose, thus making your colleagues ill?” He had a point. Presenteeism is the other side of absenteeism; it’s when people come in to work but can’t be productive for reasons ranging from illness to burnout and lack of engagement to stress. And research shows it’s far more damaging to businesses than its counterpart. Where an average of 4 productive days per person are lost annually to absenteeism, around 38 days per person are lost to presenteeism. And where sickness absence rates almost halved between 2010 and 2020, the figures for presenteeism are rising—just five years ago, only 20 productive days were lost per employee, but that figure has almost doubled today. It doesn’t take an HR software system to make the correlation. And overly strict absence schemes can only worsen this worrying trend.  

To avoid absenteeism becoming presenteeism, its once again best to use the Bradford Factor as part of a unified, data-driven HR software ecosystem like the SenseHR solution and alongside comprehensive, well promoted, and consistently implemented absence policies, schemes, and training. 

So, there you have it—mysterious origins, contentious use cases, devoted fans, and countless social media hate-threads—we told you that the Bradford Factor wasn’t as boring as it sounded. And we’ve added it to our software, so that you can experience the excitement for yourself!