Occupational Psychologist Cary Cooper: Lack of Control Impacts Stress Levels

An interview with Professor Cary Cooper, Occupational Psychologist, University of Manchester, Institute of Science and Technology, England

Q:  Why do different personalities react differently to stress?

A:  Different people cope differently with stress and two different people in the same context will behave differently. And they'll do so, in part, from their early childhood background. We learn our coping strategies in life from our parents. We identify particularly with parents, we see how they deal with situations and we model that kind of behavior.

There is a view that there's a genetic predisposition to coping, that people's kind of armory of coping strategies comes through the genetic of predisposition and tendencies, particularly the aggressive part of their personality that can create stress-related illnesses … I don't agree with that. I think most of our coping strategies come from the environment, particularly our parents. That is, we try a particular way of coping with a particular problem and it either works or doesn't work and we that it's not useful to use that. I believe it's environmentally, not genetically determined.

Q:  What is the role of stress in disease?

A:  I actually believe that human beings are genetically predisposed to a whole range of illnesses, whether it's heart disease, maybe even mental ill health, immune system failures and so on. And so we're a loaded gun and stress is the trigger mechanism which starts that process. So the object for me as a scientist is to try to identify the triggers that start the process for a genetic predisposition. If we can get the finger as far away from the trigger as possible then the disease process — which may be genetically predisposed — won't start.

Q:  Do women experience different stresses than men?

A:  Whether they're homemakers or working — and the majority of woman are now working — women still have the main responsibility for looking after child care, for taking domestic responsibility, while the so-called new man does his career. Really in the end the person who's suffering the stress is the woman who has to do the double shift, if she's working or pursuing a career and also looking after the child. Because we don't have a new man, we have some newish men but no new man.

Q:  Has new technology helped reduce stress?

A:  The new technology's overloading us. It's accessible everywhere, we have e-mails, we have mobile phones that can contact us in any part of our lives, seven day a week, twenty-four hour society. So what was supposed to be the social support devices for us to help us lead this great leisure life, has turned up as another stressor.

Q:  How does the workplace impact on stress?

A:  Research over the last couple of decades has shown that people who feel they have no control, no autonomy over the job they do in the work place are likely to get a stress related illness. A perfect example is a car assembly worker. Many blue-collar workers don't have as much control as managers. However, jobs are now changing. Jobs are insecure from the shop floor to the top floor, so the lack of control and the feelings of no autonomy and no control over the nature of your job are moving up the socioeconomic ladder. And people in white collar, professional jobs are suffering from lack of control as well. But probably still not as much as blue-collar workers.

For many people these days, jobs are just insecure, from shop floor to top floor. Whether you're a blue collar or a manager, jobs are no longer for life. And this is a major source of stress and a major potential source of stress related illness.

Q:  Why do blue-collar works seem more stressed than someone in senior management?

A:  There is a big difference, I think, between the shop floor and senior management, in the sense that shop floor workers have much less control than very senior management…[Senior managers] have a sense of control. They have some kind of status. They have a different kind of lifestyle, in a sense. And they feel that they're involved in decision-making, in fact they lead decision-making. Whereas a paced assembly line worker on the shop floor of a car-manufacturing outfit has very little control.

The sources of the stress may be different but it doesn't necessarily mean that the outcomes are any different. They may have slightly more stress-related illnesses the further down the socioeconomic ladder, but that gap is definitely narrowing as jobs at the top end are becoming very insecure as well.

Q:  Do women cope with stress differently than men?

A:  Women tend to be better copers than men. And the reason is, they can talk about their feelings. They can seek social support from a close friend if they need to. They use a whole range of coping strategies; now men don't do that. Men have a great deal of difficulty expressing their feelings about what's troubling them. Men also have trouble talking to other men about their problems — or talking to anybody about their problems. So they kind of shoulder through in macho style…And I think it explains why much of the research shows that women don't get stress-related illnesses to the same extent that men do.

Q:  Do conveniences such as stores open extended-hours and laptops offer us flexibility and freedom from stress?

A:  We're now part of a culture that is a seven-day-a-week, twenty-four-hour society. It's working all the time. We go into shops at all hours. The people who have to serve us in shops have to work all sorts of unsocial hours. So the kind of lifestyle is kind of a frenetic lifestyle. We're not having any time for kind of reflection, for thinking about what we're doing in our life. When we were a nine to five, five day a week culture or five and a half day week culture we had time for peace, for communing with our family, for taking walks, for being together, which we don't have any more.

It seems as if the workplace is everywhere. We all lead a kind of tortoiseshell existence, where the office is at our back, whether it's on an airplane, on a train, almost in a car nowadays…What most of us actually need is some kind of reflection time, some peace, to be with our families. What I think causes people most stress nowadays is the long-working-hours culture they are involved in. We don't have balance. The long-working-hours culture, the difficulty in the roles between men and women. And what we're doing is imposing too much on women and not sharing the family responsibilities. This is what we have to get back to. It's peace, it's solace and understanding of what life is all about. Life is not all about working.