Use ‘Graded Assertiveness’ to ask for a break

How to speak up about the need to take breaks at work

How can workers learn to speak up about the importance of taking breaks to mitigate tiredness? Graded Assertiveness offers one approach. NapNow asks health services improvement coach Jane Stanfield, how we can apply it in the office.

Imagine you’ve been working on an important project with your manager or boss for about three hours straight. You now feel drained and unable to focus, and feel the need to take a short break.

Would you feel confident to speak ‘up’ the authority gradient, and ask this of your boss? (The authority gradient is the difference in power and status between a senior and more junior professional.)

At a very limbic (survival) level, this kind of assertiveness might feel career limiting. But left unchallenged, authority gradients can kill people, according to Jane Stanfield, Health Services Improvement Coach who runs workshops in Communication and Patient Safety for Queensland Health.

“We’ve seen cases of terrible accidents in aviation and health care, when junior staff feel they can’t speak up to senior staff to alert them to a potential error,” says Stanfield.

While it’s obvious that poor judgement for pilots or doctors can put people’s lives at risk, decision making in other professions can be just as critical. Lawyers and accountants, for example, make daily decisions that affect the wellbeing of their clients and tiredness or fatigue is one factor that can interfere with sound judgement.

So exactly how could you go about alerting your boss to the need for you both to take an energy or brain break? It’s not common office talk, nor is it something you get taught in your MBA. But it’s essential for productivity and safety, in any professional role.
‘Graded Assertiveness’ is one communication tool that you could draw upon. It was developed in the aviation industry and is now taught in some medical settings. The ‘PACE’ model, which is endorsed by the Royal College of Anaesthetics in Australia and New Zealand, offers a graded call to attention, summarised by the acronym PACE: Probe, Alert, Challenge, Emergency. You only proceed to a higher level if your concern is unheeded and client safety is at risk.

Jane offers some examples of how it could be applied to minimise the risks of white-collar fatigue.

Probe: Express an observation, or concern, or that you are unclear about something.

I am starting to feel a bit tired here … and I think my efficiency is reducing/ my brain feels a bit overloaded. How are you feeling?

Alert: Not satisfied with the response, but not yet confronting either. Try suggesting an alternative approach.

I am wondering if I/we could take a break for 15 minutes, and come back to this with a new set of eyes. It’ll help me to be more effective.

Challenge: You want to engage the pre-frontal cortex of their brain – the higher order decision maker – to get the other person out of automatic behaviour or habits. Questions are helpful.

This is an important project and I’m concerned about the accuracy and quality of our work. Is there any reason why taking 15 minutes would be a problem when we are clearly not working at our best?

Emergency: Only go to this level if a client’s wellbeing is seriously at risk. In aviation, co-pilots use “you must listen,” to signal that their senior must heed what the junior pilot is saying.

For legal and audit purposes, I am going to take a break now.

For the safety of the patient, I am taking a break.

“Very assertive people find the probe and alert very difficult, while those who are diplomatic find the challenge and emergency difficult,” says Stanfield. “Start by practising the probe and alert.”

The tone of your statements is as important as the content. “Try to adopt an attitude of curiosity for the Probe and Alert, and express your Challenge and Emergency with concern,” suggest Jane. “This helps put you on the same side, focussing on the wellbeing of the client, rather than on opposite sides of the fence.”

About Jane:
Jane is a health services improvement coach. Her expertise lies in coaching leaders and teams to implement local, relevant culture change that will energise and motivate healthcare providers to improve the safety and reliability of their care —while caring for themselves. Jane received two Queensland Health Awards for Excellence in ‘supporting and developing staff’ in the state-wide Transforming Care Initiative. She is also a facilitator of the two- day PeopleFuel Program of The Energy Project, that trains workers in principles and practices of sustainable high performance.