Setting Sickness Absence Triggers and Targets

One of the main tools used in effective absence management is the accurate measurement of the absence of employees due to sickness. This measurement can then be used for monitoring purposes, including the use of specific triggers and targets.

An absence trigger is a defined level of sickness absence that, when reached (either on a business level or by individual employees), should prompt a process whereby the senior management team or the line manager looks into the level of sickness absence further. Consistently acting on triggers that have been reached has been proven to reduce absence levels.

Having absence trigger systems in place means that line managers can discuss any emerging patterns or issues with their employees, with the aim of supporting them to improve attendance levels at work. It can also help managers to identify cases of sickness absence that are not genuine.

An accurate measurement of absence within the business is also necessary when deciding on the need for, or setting, an absence target.  

An absence target is a specific level of sickness absence – generally the number of days’ absence per employee over a 12-month period – that the employer sets as a goal to reduce the level of absence. Having a target in place will not reduce absence in its own right but works as part of an overall absence management programme.

Other methods of managing sickness absence include return-to-work interviews and requiring employers to provide information on sickness absence. Consistent absence management can allow the employer to identify trends and explore the underlying causes of sickness absence.

Measuring time lost to sickness absence

There are various ways in which employers can measure time lost due to sickness absence. The employer should decide which measure or measures best suit its circumstances, as different measures of absence focus on different aspects of time lost to sickness absence.

There are four main recognised ways of measuring time lost to sickness absence:

  • the lost time rate,
  • the frequency rate,
  • the individual frequency rate and;
  • the Bradford factor.

The Lost Time Rate

The lost time rate is the measure most commonly used and shows the percentage of total time available that has been lost due to any type of absence during a certain period of time. It is calculated by dividing the total absence in hours or days in the period by the possible total in hours or days in the period, and then multiplying by 100.

Frequency Rate

The frequency rate measurement shows the average number of periods of absence per employee expressed as a percentage. It gives no indication of the length of each sickness absence period and no indication of employees who have taken more than one period of absence. It is calculated by dividing the number of spells of absence in the period by the number of employees in the period, and then multiplying by 100.

Individual Frequency Rate

The individual frequency rate measurement shows the number of individual employees who have been absent during a period of time expressed as a percentage. As with the frequency rate, it gives no indication of the length of each sickness absence period.

It is calculated by dividing the number of employees taking one or more spells of absence during a period by the number of employees in the period, and then multiplying by 100.

Bradford Factor

The Bradford Factor identifies persistent short-term absence for individual employees as it gives extra weight to the number of periods of sickness absence taken per employee. It is therefore a useful measure of the organisational disturbance caused by this type of continual absence. The Bradford score = S x S x D, where S is the number of spells of absence in 52 weeks taken by an employee and D is the number of days of absence in 52 weeks taken by that employee.

For example, if an employee has three spells of absence in 52 weeks totalling seven days of absence in 52 weeks, the Bradford factor would be:

3 x 3 x 7 = 63

The Bradford factor can be a useful measure of sickness absence for your business to use when setting absence triggers so that they can investigate absence when it reaches a certain trigger level.

Choosing a method of measuring sickness absence

When choosing a method of measuring sickness absence, the employer should look at what information each one provides and decide which measurement, or combination of measurements, is the most suitable.

A small employer may decide that it needs to use only one or two methods of measuring sickness absence, as using more would make the process too complicated and time consuming. For example, using both the lost time rate and the individual frequency rate should be adequate as they will provide both the percentage of time lost to absence and the percentage of employees who have been absent during that time.

A much larger employer may wish to use all four methods to provide it with all the information that it requires to manage the sickness absence of a large number of employees. This will enable it to highlight absence issues in certain areas and for certain individuals, as well as providing it with an overview of the gravity of the sickness absence problem in the organisation as a whole.

The choice of method or methods of measuring sickness absence will depend on the size of the business, the extent of the problem with sickness absence and the resources that the employer has to manage it.

Recording sickness absence

The employer must decide how the chosen measures should be recorded, in line with its absence policy.

It should identify who will have responsibility for gathering the sickness absence information, who will calculate the absence measurements and how and when this information will be communicated to line managers.

Many businesses use an HR information system to record sickness absence such as Breathe HR with employees recording their sickness absence online from where it is then fed into an overall reporting tool. Where such a system isn’t in place, managers will prepare the sickness absence forms for their team members and pass them to HR or the appropriate person to input them into a database or spreadsheet.

The appropriate person then chases missing information and produces the relevant reports on a periodic basis, normally monthly. The employer needs to ensure that all information required in order to measure absence is accurately and consistently recorded. The measurement and management of sickness absence is only as effective as the quality of the data that is collected and recorded.

Setting absence triggers

Once it has decided which absence measures to use and has a process in place to gather accurate data on sickness absence, the employer needs to decide on its absence triggers. These are the points at which a defined level of sickness absence has been reached. This should then trigger an alert to the relevant line manager ensuring that the absence can be investigated and managed.

Absence triggers can also help deter some employees from taking sick leave where they are not genuinely ill. Triggers can also be the starting point for possible disciplinary procedures.

Employers should take individual circumstances into consideration: for example it would be unreasonable and inappropriate to start disciplinary procedures in relation to an employee who is attending regular medical appointments for an ongoing health issue and consequently has a high sickness absence rate.

Employers should be aware of the need to approach absence that is related to a disability or pregnancy differently to other sickness absence. While employers can use triggers as part of their absence management procedure to identify when disabled or pregnant employees may need support or adjustments to enable them to perform their role, there is a risk of a claim for discrimination arising from disability, or pregnancy and maternity discrimination, if a disciplinary procedure is commenced as a result of an employee reaching a trigger point due to absence for these reasons.

The employer needs to have an effective alerting process in place that will flag up when an employee’s absence levels have reached a trigger point. Employers can use a human resources database (Breathe HR) with the ability to flag up electronically when recorded sickness absence has reached a trigger point. Alternatively, they can use a spreadsheet to record sickness absences manually and highlight manually employees who have reached a trigger point.

Setting absence targets

Having an accurate measurement of sickness absence is also necessary when setting absence targets. An absence target is a certain level of sickness absence that the employer sets as a goal to reduce absence levels. While having a target in place will not, of itself, reduce absence, it can act as a focus point for absence management tools and as a useful benchmark.

Whether or not an employer decides to set an absence target for its business will depend on the extent to which sickness absence is a problem.


The employer needs to set out how it will communicate to employees on absence triggers and targets, and their use and inclusion within a wider absence policy. Absence triggers and targets should be seen by staff as a proactive way of improving the health and wellbeing of employees and reducing unnecessary sickness from work, rather than a way of putting pressure on employees to come to work when they are genuinely ill. Employers should stress to employees that the measures will be applied consistently across the organisation.

The employer should clearly lay out how absence is going to be measured, how triggers are reached and what the absence target is. If employees understand that the measurement weights short-term absenteeism, they will realise that taking the odd day off on a regular basis will quickly multiply their score, possibly triggering a review. This may have the effect of deterring them from taking sick days when they are not genuinely ill.

Role of Line Managers

Line managers have an essential role to play in the absence management process, from reporting absence to ensuring that employees are completing all relevant sickness forms when they return to work after a period of sickness, so that the data collected is accurate. They also need to act consistently when an absence trigger has been met, whether the appropriate step is reminding the employee of the absence policy or holding an absence review meeting.


Line managers will need adequate training to develop the skills required to manage absence effectively and have potentially difficult conversations around absence with their reports. Line managers also need to be knowledgeable about the business’ absence policies and procedures and understand their role in the management of absence.

If you need any help or assistance with any aspect of Sickness Absence Management, please do get in touch with us here at Westcountry HR……………………..Call Nicki or Louise on 01626 367595