Taking Control: Get back in the driving seat and change gear

Ann Treneman
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:45

How does a stress guru cope when life crashes about his ears? In day two of our series on antidotes to the anxieties of the Nineties, Ann Treneman finds out

Professor Cary Cooper may not be the only stress expert in Britain, but sometimes it feels that way. Never has someone with a title as workaday as "occupational psychologist" seemed so much in danger of becoming a guru. The man is everywhere - in the papers, on radio, on television - with an opinion on everything from Gordon Brown's fingernails to the risks of working long hours to the renewed popularity of the names William and Harry.

The one subject that Cary Cooper does not talk about very much is himself. Until now. But his new book is called Stop the World: Finding a Way Through the Pressures of Life, and you cannot write a book telling us how to take control of our lives without saying whether you have control of your own.

"Ooooohh," he says. "Listen to this lady."

I say that as a Californian he should know all about being open and honest. He says he has lived in England since he was 24 (he is now 57) and he cringes when he goes back to Los Angeles and people insist on being loving, giving, caring, sharing. "I just want to throw up," he says in an accent so broad that he could be a tourist. "I mean I really do have trouble. I've lived here too long."

But not long enough to just say no to personal questions. The book says that the key to taking control is to know yourself. Are you an uptight Type A or a more placid Type B? What drives you? Do you see yourself as having control over events or being controlled by them? "Well I'm definitely Type A," Cary Cooper says. "We are rushed, time-conscious, driven, and push ourselves to the absolute limit. But I am not a workaholic. A workaholic is addicted to work. I may be driven, but I have other parts to my life. When I go home I cut off. I'm very good at that. My home life is totally separate. I really have two worlds I live in."

All of this would be a bit more believable if I weren't sitting in Cary Cooper's home on the day before he and his wife Rachel are to fly to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his 86-year-old mother and, incidentally, to take care of some business to do with a US academic journal. "I founded it 20 years ago and, after all that time, I thought may be I should let go," he says. Nor is it the only journal he works on. In addition he has written or edited some 80 books and hundreds of articles. Not to mention his rent-a-quote tendencies. Clearly this is a man who knows something about being a workaholic, even if he is not one now.

So has life ever seemed out of control? "Now I better tell you the truth. Or I'm going to get in trouble!"

He tells a story that will be familiar to many: of a young academic with ambitions and a wife and two small children. He worked long hours and, when he was asked to go to a conference here or there, he couldn't say no. The marriage faltered and he didn't know his children as well as he might. "Though I guess you don't know whether it was ambition that drove me, or if I kept travelling because my marriage wasn't so good," he says. "That's the fine line."

At this point the occupational psychologist in Cary Cooper cannot control himself any longer. "You know that the feeling of being out of control is probably the most significant factor in experiencing stress today. Lack of control is the big problem now," he says, waving his arms with excitement. "Society is changing so much. The nature of work is changing. There are so much more short-term contracts and part-time and freelance work. We have the highest divorce rate in Europe. There is the changing role between men and women. That is just amazing; not only are women working but they are pushing up the glass ceiling, competing with men, getting to senior levels - slowly, but they are getting there. All of this means there are certain people in society who feel they have no control. Quite a lot of men feel that now. They feel threatened. People feel job insecure. How do they get control of that?"

Indeed, but, perhaps more to the point, how did Cary Cooper get control of his life when his marriage went wrong? He looks startled for a moment, and then concentrates.

"Let me see. You know how I knew I was in trouble? I got sick. I got what I think now they would call chronic fatigue syndrome. Incidentally, I've done a study on that. Anyway, how I knew that I was out of control is that I got ill, and for quite a long time. I'm talking months."

For many of those months, he just thought he was ill. "You know, being a psychologist doesn't help when you are looking at yourself," he says. "Finally I did start to wonder if there was something underlying it. I think people should do this if they get, say, persistent headaches and can't find anything organically wrong. Or lose their sense of humour, become more aggressive, start to get lots of minor illnesses. I think you ought to question what the hell is going on. Your body is a machine and, like any machine, from time to time it fuses. I think my body was telling me that there were problems in my life and I had to get them sorted."

But first he had to figure out what was going on. "Number one, you need to find a friend. But it has got to be somebody who is not just a supporter or somebody who, in a California-type way, says `Hi baby, I can help you out, come here for a cuddle.' What you need is honesty. It's got to be a friend who helps you identify how you can gain control. What options are open to you? Some may be wholly unpalatable."

Once again the occupational psychologist takes over. Did I know that the person being bullied by his or her boss is the perfect example of someone whose life feels out of control in the Nineties? In this case too he needs to find a friend to help answer some questions. What kind of bully is the boss? Is he a psychopath with deep-rooted problems or a situational bully who is himself overwhelmed by stress? Then you need to look at the options. Should you confront the boss, look for a new job, try and avoid him? "The important thing here, Ann, is that you are making decisions and that gains you control. You are saying: I've got options!"

But, I ask, how did Cary Cooper find out his options? He thinks again. He says he has never been to a therapist but he did go back to Los Angeles to talk to his best friend and his family doctor. "It took me a while to take a decision but that started the process." The decision was to leave his wife and young family. "It was a failure. When you get divorced, it's a failure and you better learn from it. After my marriage dissolved and then I met Rachel and got married and had kids with her, I said, that's it. I'll never do that again."

And he hasn't. "I really love my work but I don't let it dominate my life," he says. He is close to all four of his children, who range in age from 25 to 12. "Weekends are sacrosanct. I leave at 5 or 5.30 every day. That is more or less a rule. That's the truth, isn't it honey?" he asks Rachel as she cruises through the lounge. She nods. "I don't work at night and never at weekends. After 5.30 is family."

At this point Cary Cooper gets locked on to one of his favourite subjects: long hours and the price we pay for it. He has even coined the latest buzzword word for it: "presenteeism". Does he ever have the desire to leave his coat on the chair to pretend he's still there at 7pm? "Or to send e-mails at 2am! That's the new electronic one." No, he says, he has been cured of such things once and for all.

The book has a chapter called "Wrong Turnings" which lists the ways people try to deal with stress. Workaholism is there (see panel for others). Has he taken any, new, wrong turnings since he changed his ways? "Let me see. I don't drink. I don't smoke. I tell you something I should do more of. I'm not involved in the community enough - I'm not actively engaged."

What causes him stress? "It's not deadlines. It's not the amount of work. As a person I need to be liked and like to be liked. I guess you would get a lot of psychologists saying that," he says. We talk about a stress diary - an idea put forward in the book - where you note upsetting events. By the end of a month or so, a pattern may emerge. For some people it will be events that upset them, for others it will be people. Clearly for Professor Cooper it would be the latter.

"If I read a review of a book of mine - I shouldn't be saying this to you, should I! - and it was critical of me personally rather than of the book, that would trouble me. There was a time when people would say that I couldn't be a good academic because I went on television or talked to the press. I feel very comfortable in my science now but when I was younger, that really upset me. I am a polymath. I like doing the media, so why shouldn't I do it?"

He leans forward. "You know something, Ann, I've done work on successful people. I've written books on it. Quite a lot of them look the most secure people in the world and they are not. You must ask yourself what drives somebody to continue to do that and the driving force in these people - and it's true of myself too - is basic insecurity. It's a basic feeling that I have to prove something to me. Not to you, but to me. Therefore I get hurt if somebody attacks me because I think: maybe they are right, maybe I'm not as competent as I should be." And then he sits back and smiles. There, is that too Californian?"

But then preparations for California itself beckon and there is just time to ask him if he has any New Year's resolutions. Does he want to change his Type A behaviour? He admits to still suffering from hurry-sickness and is time obsessed to the point that he will get to a station incredibly early to make sure he doesn't miss a train. No, he says, but he does have something else he wants to change. "I tell you what. I hope I do this. I hope to god I do. But then I will need to break it down into achievable bits," he mutters and then looks at me. "I'd like to do something for my community. I don't just mean giving money but time." I nod because, for a Type A, nothing is more precious than time.

Stop The World: Finding a Way Through the Pressures of Life by Cary Cooper and Murray Watts is published by Hoddern and Stoughton this week at pounds 7.99.

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