If you’ve had anything to do with HR in your career, you’ll likely have heard of The Bradford Factor (TBF). It’s a widely used HR tool that purports to measure staff productivity, specifically in terms of absence. But we’ve seen a lot of changes to workplaces and work cultures in the Information Era, and even more post-pandemic, with new tech still emerging at a rapid pace. In this context, are Bradford scores still relevant? Or should we be using (or developing) alternative measures of staff productivity?
The Bradford Factor is a tool used in HR management to measure, track and assess patterns of absenteeism in the organisation, to enable management to assess the impact of sickness/unplanned absence on staff productivity, a subject we’ve discussed in depth previously. The approach was named after its place of origin, having been developed by researchers at the Bradford University School of Management in the UK in the 1980s.
The underlying principle of TBF is that short, frequent absences are more disruptive to work continuity than longer (typically planned) absences. As such, its purpose is to highlight patterns of absence that may give rise to productivity issues in an organisation.
A Bradford score calculator will give every employee a numerical score based on the frequency and duration of their unplanned absences. These are the kinds of absences that will typically be related to sickness (physical or mental), though they may also arise due to caring obligations, whether for children or unwell family members.
The formula used to calculate the Bradford Factor score is pretty straightforward:
S² x D = BF
Where S represents the total instances of absence (each of which could be one or multiple days) over a defined period (commonly a financial or calendar year); and D represents the total number of days absent over that same period.
An employee’s Bradford Factor score supposedly reflects the impact of their absence pattern on the organisation, where a higher score indicates greater disruption. As the theory behind TBF is that short, frequent absences are more disruptive than fewer, longer absences, the formula gives greater weight to multiple short absences over a brief period.
Once scores have been calculated, it is then up to individual employers and organisations if and where they want to set thresholds for intervention or disciplinary action, and what form that might take. It’s down to the interpretation of that objective data – management at one organisation might see high scores as indicative of an issue with morale or staff engagement; another might presume abuse of the sick leave policy. How TBF is implemented and to what effect is very much a question of corporate culture.
This points to the obvious limitation of TBF in HR management – the scores reveal patterns in objective data. They give no context and don’t make allowances for individual circumstances, such as known medical conditions, pregnancies (where fluctuating/changing symptoms may result in the ‘problematic’ pattern of short, frequent absence over a short period), bereavement, or recurrent mental health issues. The formula reduces complex human circumstances into a single number, which is supposedly indicative of a single employee’s productivity (or lack thereof).
Nevertheless, when utilised by a compassionate HR department that doesn’t view statistics as complete and absolute truth, TBF can help organisations to identify patterns of absenteeism and take appropriate and relevant action to minimise the impact of absence on productivity. In many cases, this may involve a positive intervention, for example providing support to employees who need it and/or implementing attendance improvement initiatives. From a more academic perspective, it also provides a useful benchmarking tool to compare absence patterns between departments, teams, even companies and identify potential improvements that could make working life better for everyone.
Of course, TBF is just one tool among many in the HR management toolbox and should not be used in isolation – when complemented by management discretion and other productivity metrics, a much fuller picture and fairer process is provided. But with so many productivity measures and tools available now – many, many more than when TBF was created – should it still be in the toolbox at all, or has its use by date expired?
The Bradford Factor was developed by researchers in the 1980s, when a large proportion of the current workforce (ahem) hadn’t even been born. The work culture in ‘80s Britain was not reflective of our current professional values or practices, nor our modern attitudes to work. There was no internet! Working from home was reserved largely for those who literally worked in the home – cleaners, piano teachers, plumbers, maybe some private tutors.
A ‘job for life’ was a common aspiration, and employees were keen to demonstrate their loyalty to their employer – a phenomenon that is not seen in the new generation of ‘job-hoppers’, who typically move roles or even companies every few years. There’s also been a huge rise in freelancing, ‘gig work’ and generally more flexible work arrangements – with so many more options available now, how attractive is an employer who’s going to assign you a numerical score that supposedly indicates how ‘disruptive’ you are, based on circumstances largely beyond your control?
Clearly, times have changed, with the main driver of that change being technology – the whole point of which is to increase and/or facilitate human productivity. So it stands to reason that some of the parameters considered in TBF might need to be reconsidered and/or the formula updated. How would TBF score an employee working from home? Are they absent or are they not? Do they get a half score for working but not being physically present? How do we account for people who are more productive working alone at home, and those who are source of distraction in the office?
But it’s more than that, as our society has changed, so too have our values and work philosophies. With that in mind, some problems with the underlying theory of TBF emerge that call into question its fairness and applicability in the 21st century.
The biggest issue with TBF is that it equates time with productivity, when we know that the relationship is not linear and that absence in and of itself does not necessarily mean a proportional reduction in productivity. We also know that presenteeism – where employees show up to work even while sick – has a negative impact on productivity, as well as on health. If we took TBF as gospel, we could see an increase in presenteeism and the many disadvantages associated with that. Yet TBF theory would suggest that the ‘presentee’ employee is more productive because they are physically present, even though they may be doing very little ‘production’ and indeed may be lowering the productivity of the organisation overall by spreading illness amongst their colleagues.
Sobering data from the UK shows that 32.5 million working days were lost to work-related ill health in 2019/20 – it is easy to see how a narrow fixation on sickness absence could be fuelling the kind of presenteeism, and consequent stress and burnout, that pushes those numbers up, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Covid-19 pandemic also highlighted the importance of physical isolation when symptomatic, and the health risks that going to work when ill poses to others. In this sense, presenteeism is not only unproductive – it’s potentially harmful. In our more health-conscious context, tools like the Bradford Factor arguably do not provide a fair indication of productivity. Indeed, these systems penalise employees who adhere to health and safety guidelines and act in a responsible way. As such, they arguably do more harm than good, placing the health of the business above the health of its staff and damaging both in the process.
Productivity used to be simple to understand and measure. Before the rapid evolution of computing technologies, productivity required people – specifically, and essentially, their time. In most cases, it also required their physical presence. In that context, TBF offered a straightforward way to measure staff productivity and identify issues caused by absence. It was perhaps simplistic, but usefully so – it gave a broad overview and allowed patterns to be revealed.
Now, though, our understanding of productivity is more nuanced and our wonderfully modern, inclusive, flexible workplaces too complex (necessarily so) for a simplistic system to be able to usefully break it down into X + Y = Z.
Fortunately, technology affords us the ability to develop and benefit from more complex systems and, as such, there are many alternatives to TBF if you do want to monitor productivity. Approaches that focus on employee outreach (for example through anonymous surveys) provide qualitative rather than quantitative data that can then be analysed to spot patterns that could uncover issues with morale or potential burnout, that can then be addressed by the organisation to improve productivity. From a management perspective, good communication and goal-setting are much more effective at motivating and incentivising staff than close scrutiny and arbitrary scores and thresholds.
Armed with a better understanding of productivity, we can shift the focus of measurement tools away from mere attendance towards performance and output as better indicators of the most and least productive employees. Add into that a greater awareness of the role of trust, morale and respect in increasing workplace productivity, and an appreciation of the complex nature of mental and physical health, its contributors and impact, and we can now do much better than a system that disincentivises employees from prioritising their health.
One element of the theory behind TBF remains relevant and potentially true – the question of whether random, short and frequent absences are more disruptive than longer, less frequent and planned absence. Arguably, it’s not the absence itself that is harming productivity, but the lack of forewarning and so inability to plan for it.
Whether or not it is impacting productivity, tracking absence is always helpful from a business perspective. Random days or afternoons off don’t need to be productivity killers if they’ve been booked in advance. There are also ways to reduce the impact of unplanned sickness absence, with a good policy and systems in place, such as employee leave planners that make the process of reporting and tracking sickness easier and more streamlined.
Overall, the Bradford Factor has had its moment. The suggestion, implicit in TBF, that ‘sickness absence = lower productivity’ without any recognition that ‘sick employee turning up to work also = lower productivity’, is certainly not helpful, nor is it reflective of a modern workplace and work culture. It reduces employees – who are humans, after all – to a quantity rather than a quality. In doing so, it misses too much of the big picture and penalises people for behaviours that we should be encouraging because they keep everyone (the business included) healthy and, ultimately, productive.
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