Professor Cary Cooper of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) is a man so full of breezy transatlantic togetherness than even his answerphone message makes you want to chill out, buck up and carpe diem. An expert on occupational stress, Cooper is measuring weekend stress, a reservoir of angst created by our lengthening working hours and shortage of disposable free time: weekday chores get shunted onto the weekend, and leisure time gets organised with the frantic severity of weekday work.
"I'm worried about people taking stress from the workplace and translating it into domestic leisure activities, " he tells me. "You're too stressed out during the week to do chores, and by Saturday morning you've got all these things that need to be done. So, whaddoyado?"
"You write yourself a list." Ah, yes, I do do that. "My wife and I have one and it's astronomical by the time we run through it on a Saturday
morning. And are we unwinding? Are we imbibing the delights of the Peak District?" Are you? "Are we? You're kidding? All our unwinding time is spent shopping!"
Cooper's work on weekend angst has recorded a range of physical symptoms caused by so-called "rollover stress" - tension that has built up during the week and remains in the body if you don't make time to relax outside the workplace. "People suffer from headaches, indigestion problems, irritable bowel syndrome, frequent colds and flus. They feel tired when they wake up in the morning, and, when they do sit back, rather than communicate with each other they withdraw to the television and can't be bothered to talk."
For Yvonne Courtney, PR consultant, 34, and her partner Misha Stefan, architect, 37, weekends are as hectic as weekdays. Misha usually spends his Saturday on the building site, while Yvonne squeezes in a session at the gym before going to scout around exhibitions for work to show in their design gallery off Ladbroke Grove. On Sunday afternoon, you'll find them careering around Sainsbury's and sorting out office chores that didn't get finished in the week.
Yvonne is slightly mystified by the free time others seem to have. "You sometimes read that people have more leisure time, but I don't know where that idea comes from - I have to make an appointment with myself so I can make time to go to the gym." She's not always been so good at managing her week: "There was a time when I let everything take over and it made me quite ill," she admits. But for Misha, sleep is the only respite from work: "Whenever I'm awake I am working or thinking about work," he explains. "The idea of leisure is obsolete, and because there are no mountains or lakes around London, it's a difficult place to dissipate stress," he argues.
For those with children, the weekend can be the most stressful 48 hours of the week. Emma, 34, describes her situation in terms of the siege of Sarajevo. "The weekend isn't a very peaceful time for me," she confesses. "Not with two youngish kids. In fact, sometimes the office seems like a bit of a UN safe haven from marauding two and three year-olds. It's certainly a lot quieter than being at home."
Rick Jordan, 27, is a freelance writer with a grudge against household chores: "The weekend's like going on holiday," he reflects. "It's meant to be relaxing but it's usually really stressful. You resent doing things like housework in your free time - it builds up, so you end up spending half a day doing the washing and cleaning up the flat."
And the pressure to use every scintilla of free time to socialise aggressively and go to cultural events brings its own difficulties. Rick's worried about losing out: "You're constantly aware of the availability of things: readings, exhibitions, music, films and plays - you get information about these all the time and try to fit as many in as you can - trying to have a good time can be just as stressful as a day in the office."
For Rick, metropolitan living comes with anxieties attached. He says, "If all your friends are scattered over different parts of London, it can take you an hour to organise an evening out, and sometimes you find yourself agreeing to go out when you're really too tired to go. It's peer pressure: you might sound a bit weak if you say you want to veg out in front of the TV". Rick pauses in bleary contemplation. Where do these friends of his get their energy from, I ask? "I don't know," he confesses, a note of despair in his voice. "Going clubbing gets more difficult as you get older. I never used to suffer from hangovers and I do now. God, I sound like I'm about 40."
And there's another source of weekend stress: as you scrape at the burnt lasagne dish that's been sitting on the draining board since Tuesday, worrying about whether you'll get it done before your appointment to meet your friends at the pub, your Sunday afternoon can be haunted by the spectre of your Monday morning in-tray. One of the less jolly facts of the case is that the weekend is the most popular time of the week for suicide. Calls to The Samaritans rocket on a Saturday night - when people come home drunk and miserable (after having gone out to try to have a good time) and Sunday night, when those depressed by their work get pre-Monday- morning terrors. "It's difficult to speculate on precise reasons," admits Samaritans spokesperson Emma Borton, "but all sorts of pressures accumulate at the weekend, and it seems that stress is on the increase generally."
Cary Cooper agrees: "The pace of life is incredible in Britain - when I go to the US I go for a rest." But he's not gloomy about our long-term prospects, seeing cause for optimism in trends like downshifting. "People should realise what's important in the long run is personal relationships and that we're all disposable in our work environment - if you have a heart attack because of stress and have to take months off work, the company doesn't collapse. Your boss would not miss you more than your partner or your spouse or your family." So, see that pile of paperwork you were going to attack this afternoon? Use it to line the cat-litter tray.Reuse content