The Secretive Formula Used by Bosses to Punish Workers for Being Sick

The Bradford Factor, a secretive formula used by bosses to determine the 'disruptiveness' of worker absences, is an increasingly popular means of employer control – and treating illness as an offence.

Modern workers have always been subject to the control of managers. To aid those managers’ mission, a range of insidious tools have been developed over the years, ranging from time sheets to surveillance software to fastidiously monitored toilet breaks. Over the last couple of decades, a new innovation has been added to the management tool kit: the Bradford Factor.

The Bradford Factor is a simple calculation designed to measure how ‘disruptive’ a worker’s sickness absence is. The calculation runs B = S x S x D, where B is the Bradford Factor score, S is the number of discrete episodes of sickness absence over a given period, and D is the total number of days of sickness absence over the same period. Normally, the calculation will be accompanied by a ‘trigger point’ – meaning that when an employee’s Bradford Factor score reaches a certain number, disciplinary proceedings are initiated.

Nobody quite knows where the Bradford Factor comes from. Despite the trappings of scientific formality, it wasn’t the product of academic research. The name supposedly denotes a connection to the Bradford University School of Management, but the university have disavowed responsibility for it. The best guess is that it was developed by a chemicals company following a series of corporate seminars at the university in the 1980s, and has metastasised since then.

Sounding the Alarm

Phil Taylor is an academic at University of Strathclyde. In 2013, he sounded the alarm about the use of the Bradford Factor in a paper for the Scottish TUC, describing it and similar tools as means of ‘penalising the sick’, and noting a trend of ‘progressive tightening of management control’ when it comes to sickness absence. Nearly a decade on, the situation has hardly improved. ‘If anything it’s got worse,’ he tells Tribune.

Evidence on the extent of the use of the Bradford Factor is hard to come by, but there are some indicators of its growth over time: in 2001, a Unison spokesperson said that their national negotiators had never heard of the tool; today, Unison has a Bradford Factor fact sheet on its website.

A negotiator at the PCS union tells Tribune that the Bradford Factor and similar sickness absence tools that work on the basis of ‘trigger points’ tied to disciplinary procedures—what he calls the ‘trigger point regime’—are ‘a constant issue on the bargaining agenda.’

Worker Experiences

Jessica and Tom are nurses at a hospital in London, and both have fallen afoul of the Bradford Factor. Jessica, who has arthritis, was called in for a ‘return to work interview’ after taking a few days off to rest and take steroids following a flare-up in her joints.

‘The first thing that’s there is your Bradford Score,’ she remembers. ‘And I thought ‘Oh, okay, well, I don’t know what the number should be, so I’m not going to really worry about it.’ But as my arthritis got worse, my score got higher and higher, and it started to make me really anxious.’

Tom, who has chronic pain related to kidney issues, first encountered the Bradford Factor following dental surgery. ‘I was off for about a week because the pain was absolutely severe and I couldn’t eat, and if I couldn’t eat, I probably couldn’t work, so I was just being sensible and took the time off. It was only when I came back that they said, ‘We need to have this informal meeting, and your Bradford Score is this’.

‘And from there they said, ‘If it happens again then we need to go into a formal sickness plan’. I remember that being the first time and being really worried.’ He was later placed on a sickness plan after missing two weeks of work to recover from an appendectomy.

The Effects

For Jessica and others with long-term conditions in workplaces where the Bradford Factor regime is in effect, its use makes their lives substantially more difficult.

‘It’s made it harder [to manage my own arthritis],’ Jessica says, ‘because I’ve been guilty of turning up to work with active flares. I mean, I’ve come in with a huge swollen elbow which meant that I couldn’t move that whole arm – and I’m like, ‘It’s fine! I’ve got my other arm.’ I feel like it has subconsciously affected the way I manage my condition. I’m probably not looking after myself as much as I should.’

The demands the Bradford Factor regime places on workers can lead to episodes of dark absurdity, as the logic of the mechanism is spelled out. ‘I remember being told, ‘We’re going to aim for just three more episodes of sickness in the next six months,’’ recalls Jessica. ‘And I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god, I can’t tell you that.’ I don’t know how many flares I’m going to have – I have an auto-immune condition, so my body literally just attacks itself whenever it wants to. But having that thought, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got three left…’ Now that’s stuck in my head.’

Tom has had similar experiences. ‘Sometimes they’ll set a timeline, so they’ll say if you’re not sick again by July, then [the Bradford Factor score] will clear, and if you are, then we need to do a formal [sickness plan]. Which always makes me laugh, because it’s like, ‘Oh, I’ll just take extra vitamins until July then.’’

The Context

Tom feels like the Bradford Factor casts sickness itself in a suspect, negative light, as a mark against the productive worker and source of shame. ‘It adds a negative connotation towards sickness which shouldn’t really exist – it’s a negative thing to be sick because of systems like this, whereas sickness is completely normal. I mean we work in healthcare, where we see thousands and thousands of patients a year that are sick for a number of reasons, and yet we treat it as if it’s a negative thing.’

This outlook was deeply embedded in the austerity discourse of the post-financial crisis era, which, in its stigmatisation of benefit claimants and disabled people, worked from the assumption that the inability to ‘succeed’ on the labour market was a matter of choice: an individual moral failing which amounted to cheating—whether cheating the state out of benefit payments, or cheating the employer out of sick pay—and thus warranted a disciplinary response.

Such a discourse was unsettled by the clear moral and political opposition of Corbynism. But with the authors of the hard-right manifesto ‘Britannia Unchained’—which described British workers as ‘among the worst idlers in the world’—in the heart of government, and a former prosecutor who once set his sights on ‘benefit cheats’ now heading the opposition, it is unlikely that we’ve seen the last of it.

‘This [outlook] became ingrained, I would say, in the late 1990s, and it’s proven really quite difficult to shift,’ says Phil. ‘There is an underlying assumption that British workers are lazier, that they’re are slackers, always trying to take days off, sick days, and duvet days, and so on. None of the evidence, the actual evidence, supports this. Long-term trends of sickness absence in the UK have been downwards over 20-25 years.’ ONS data from 2020 found that the UK sickness absence rate had fallen to 1.8 percent – the lowest level since records began.

That such a mechanism has been able to take root across the labour market exposes the extreme of control that employers have been able to achieve in the neoliberal era. Where the post-war consensus saw markets being (at least partially) regulated to meet the needs of society, the neoliberal era has seen human beings being regulated to meet the needs of markets – in the case of the Bradford Factor, the health of workers itself becomes the object of regulation and market-driven control. ‘You could say that the Bradford Factor really is totemic in that sense,’ says Phil.

Union Response

Given the detrimental effects that the Bradford Factor has for workers, it is necessary to challenge it, argues Phil, ‘by any means necessary.’ Above all, this means trade union action. ‘Ultimately the solution lies in the collective challenge,’ he says.

Thanks in part to trade union intervention, Covid-related sickness absence has been excluded from Bradford Factor and similar sickness absence metric calculations across parts of the public sector. According to Alan Lofthouse, a national officer for Unison, this ‘was as a direct result of the work that Unison did, along with others. Very quickly, at the beginning [of the pandemic], we agreed that Covid absence would be separate from normal absence. And so people would see no impact to pay, and it wouldn’t count towards normal sickness triggers. National-level, direct impact of trade unions.’

For Jessica, this temporary change has simply served to underscore how pernicious the effects of the Bradford Factor can be. ‘The only good thing about Covid was that if you were off for Covid, it didn’t add to your Bradford Score – and the relief I got! Because I was quite sick, I ended up being off for a good few weeks. I actually had to come into hospital. And I actually took the time off I really needed, whereas I probably before would have come into work a lot earlier…  Which is really bad, when I think back on it.’

Rejecting the Bradford Factor

Over time, Tom has taught himself to ignore the Bradford Factor. ‘If I’m too sick then I’m just going to go home. I’m not going to risk making myself worse for a job.’

The Bradford Factor demands precisely this of workers: that they prioritise their job over their health. Tom is able to reject this demand and continue with his work, but not everybody is in the same position – particularly with the Bradford Factor regime linked to pay risespromotions, and redundancy decisions in some workplaces.

Nye Bevan once argued for the principle of public healthcare by stating that ‘illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay, nor an offence for which they should be penalised, but a misfortune the cost of which should be shared by the community.’ The Bradford Factor treats illness as equal parts indulgence and offence, penalising those who get sick, and landing the costs of this ‘indulgence’ on the employee.

In light of this and his years of research on the subject, Phil has come to clear conclusion. ‘The Bradford Factor is odious [and] it should be dispensed with immediately.’