Following on from Tuesday’s post about measuring happiness, there’s a potentially more damaging metric which is sometimes used in large organisations (and which is pushed by vendors of HR systems), in order to judge the veracity of somebody’s sick leave. It’s known as the Bradford Factor, and if this is your first time hearing the term, you’re most fortunate. But you need to be aware of what it is, in case it’s being used against you.

The Bradford Factor is a weighting system that’s designed to highlight employees who are more likely to take repeat absences from the workplace. The formula is simple: you square the number of distinct periods of absence, and multiply it by the total number of days off. Consider these two examples:

  • Person A who has one 5-day period of sickness would have a Bradford score of 5 (12 * 5)
  • Person B who has five 1-day periods of sickness would have a score of 125 (52 * 5)

You can see the outcome of this calculation on websites such as the Bradford Factor Calculator (which I’m wary of linking-to, in case somebody thinks that it’s a good idea to use it). We’ll get into the many, many dangers of such a system, but while we’re considering the above examples, look what happens if both of the above people are now sick for exactly the same reason (let’s imagine they both test positive for COVID):

  • If Person A is off sick for one day, their Bradford score becomes 24 (22 * 6)
  • If Person B is off sick for one day, their Bradford score becomes 216 (62 * 6)

While Person A’s score increases by almost 5x, Person B’s score is increased by almost 100 points, based purely on their previous sickness record, even though there is no implied correlation between the events. You might think “so what?” - but it’s worth observing that (as referenced on the website above, and from my own experience) there are organisations who will use certain scoring thresholds as a precursor to disciplinary action or even dismissal.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Obviously, tool vendors want to push anything metric-related, because they can then brag about their ability to seamlessly track this information for managers, taking all the worry away from you. Cold, hard data. (Here’s one such article, bragging about its “insightful reports”.) Its defenders boast that the system is efficient and fair, as it’s free from personal bias. Yet your mind is probably already swirling about the potential misuse of such numbers.

First and foremost for me - an organisation should never adopt practices which discourage sick employees from taking leave. If your team are dragging themselves to their desks because they’re fearful that a Bradford multiplier could send them over a threshold which could cost them they’re job, then that team are being ruled by intimidation. (And, ironically, by not allowing your team enough time to recover, they’ll potentially end up with longer, more serious sickness periods.)

Secondly, by creating a “fair” system which treats all sickness as the same, we’re disadvantaging our team members who need the most help. Maybe they have a particular medical history or mental health condition - neither of which they are necessarily obliged to disclose - which means that they are more prone to requiring short, sharp absences to negate the need for longer sick leave.

Needless to say, organisations which support workers’ rights are deeply opposed to the overuse of metrics such as the Bradford Factor. For a longer, more damning indictment, take a look at this PDF from UNISON, or a great article from CharlieHR titled How to use the Bradford Factor - and why you shouldn’t bother.

What’s the alternative?

We shouldn’t be looking to depersonalise our interactions with our teams. People’s individual health concerns should be deeply and independently relevant to us; people are “more than just a number”. By having open, trusting conversations with each of our team, we can better understand exactly what support we need to be able to offer them.

And guess what? Sometimes that might mean that more time off is better. Allowing people sufficient recovery time doesn’t just benefit that individual; it benefits everybody who surrounds them in the organisation, as they understand that the company finds it culturally acceptable for sick leave to be taken when it’s needed. It might not make the algorithms happy, but it’s a darned sight better for the people in your team.

Key takeaways 📝

  • Turning sick leave into numbers does a disservice to individuals’ conditions.
  • People should not be intimidated into working when ill.
  • If you’re sick, then being sick is the best thing to do.