Interview with Cary L. Cooper


By Alexandra Ilie and Beatrice Popescu

Our interviewee is Cary L. Cooper, Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health, Lancaster University Management School and Pro Vice Chancellor (External Relations) at Lancaster University. He is the author of over 100 books (on occupational stress, women at work and industrial and organizational psychology), has written over 400 scholarly articles for academic journals, and is a frequent contributor to national newspapers, TV and radio. He is currently Founding Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior and Co-Editor of the medical journal Stress & Health (formerly Stress Medicine). He is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society, The Royal Society of Arts, The Royal Society of Medicine, The Royal Society of Health, and an Academician of the Academy for the Social Sciences. Professor Cooper is the President of the British Academy of Management, is a Companion of the Chartered Management Institute and one of the first UK based Fellows of the (American) Academy of Management (having also won the 1998 Distinguished Service Award for his contribution to management science from the Academy of Management ). In 2001, Cary was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for his contribution to organizational health. He holds Honorary Doctorates from Aston University (DSc), Heriot-Watt University (DLitt), Middlesex University (Doc. Univ) and Wolverhampton University (DBA). Professor Cooper is the Editor (jointly with Professor Chris Argyris of Harvard Business School ) of the international scholarly Blackwell Encyclopedia of Management (12 Volume set); and the Editor of Who’s Who in the Management Sciences. He has been an adviser to two UN agencies; the World Health Organisation and ILO; published a major report for the EU’s European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Work Conditions on `Stress Prevention in the Workplace’; and is a special adviser to the Defence Committee of the House of Commons on their Duty of Care enquiry.  He is also the President of the Institute of Welfare Officers, Vice President of the British Association of Counselling, an Ambassador of The Samaritans and Patron of the National Phobic Society. 

EJOP: We would like to thank you for kindly affording us an interview. We know stress is a fundamental element for your research activity. How did your passion for stress’ occur?

Cary L. Cooper: Before I did my PhD, when I was a social worker in the city of Los Angeles (because I come from California originally but I have been living in Europe for thirty-five years), I saw the kind of stress the people were under. Later on, when I started to do work in the field of occupational psychology, I found out that stress was a very under-researched topic, in the late ‘70′s; therefore, I thought somebody ought to take a look at what’s happening to people in the work place, particularly because the nature of work was beginning to change.

EJOP: Among all stress models available, which one do you consider being the most appropriate to capture the complex nature of job stress?

Cary L. Cooper: I don’t think a simple model, like models that say it’s all about overload and control, for example Karasek’s model, is particularly helpful. I think it was useful in its early days, because that model focused on something that is relatively two-dimensional. It’s now being extended to a third dimension, social support. But I personally think that if you look at any work place, there could be four or five factors operating on employees in that workplace, whether it’s in the private or the public sector, and they may not have anything to do with overload and control. There may be a problem with the way people are managed, in the sense that people are badly treated and devalued, it could be the long hours, it could be the lack of work-life balance, it could be whether the public view your role as important or not, so it’s not only about overload and control, these are too simple models. I don’t think that any theory which only posits two or three factors and says these factors operate in all work environments is particularly useful.

EJOP: We are familiar with the idea that organisational stress does not reside either in the organisation, nor in the individual, but in the relationship/ transaction between the two. What strategies do you recommend both the organisation and the individual in order to reduce one of the latest issues in the organisational pathology?

Cary L. Cooper: This is a good question. I developed a strategy with the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, which is a European agency. They asked me what kind of strategy should be followed in Europe to manage organisational and workplace stress and the strategy we came up with when looking at both the individual and the organisation is a complete strategy having a primary, a secondary and tertiary level. So, the primary level deals with finding the sources of stress in an organisation. What you should do is to perform a stress audit and this is doing a primary intervention, because you are doing a diagnosis on the basis of what you find. Afterwards you do an intervention. So, for example, if you are looking at the P olice in Romania, in Bucharest, we are trying to find out what’s causing the P olice stress. In this case, you would use psychometric measures like ASSET, a measure I developed, that looks at a variety of aspects in the workplace that could cause policemen in Bucharest problems. Then you would give it to them, identify which ones are causing the problems, and the problems could be: increasing absence, mental health, labour turnover, whichever the outcome is, you would decide which sources of stress are predicting these negative outcomes. And then you take intervention strategies to deal with them, for example, if it was the lack of role-clarity – they didn’t know exactly what their role should be – you find ways to clarify it. The same applies to Police in Iraq. You probably see the Police in Iraq are not quite clear what their role is, you would have to find ways of clarifying the Police role, and what you should do is a stress audit and then intervention based on whatever the diagnosis is. That’s the primary intervention. Secondary, it means training the individual to cope better with the pressures of his or her job, helping her or him by providing training in time management, in being more assertive, in how to deal with a difficult colleague (or whatever the training is). Secondary intervention means you are training the individual on areas needing help to cope better. And the tertiary one is when the organisation provides conflict service for individuals who are not coping well. They may not be coping well because of problems at home or at work. The conflict service enables them to talk about their problems and think about the solutions. So I think you need all of those areas of intervention and if the organisation follows the primary, secondary and the tertiary strategy, it would have very few problems in the end and most of them dealt with.

EJOP: There is a large body of research on organisational stress in academics, but virtually none on the stress that academic institutions cause to students. Very often, in Eastern-Europe, exceptional research-oriented students are limited in their endeavours by the lack of appropriate information resources and the inflexible attitude of some academics towards their needs. What strategies of stress management do you recommend them?

Cary L. Cooper: What I would recommend them is almost what I said in the last question. I think you are absolutely right about this and I think it applies even in the developed world, in Western Europe and North America. I don’t think we have done enough research on what are the stress levels on undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate student at all. There is quite a lot of research being done on academics and what their stress levels are, but not on undergraduate or graduate students like yourselves. What I would suggest doing is the same way I would handle it with any organisations. For instance, if you take the University of Bucharest, I would suggest they do a survey with an established measure like ASSET (an organisation stress-screening tool) which is online or paper- pencil. By using it, sending it to all your undergraduate or graduate students, all of them, you can identify what the problem area is. If the problem is they are not supervised properly, their professors are taking them for granted, then that requires a particular type of solution, but you have to know from the students just as you have to know from the workers, what are the sources of their problems. Some students may say they are not well supervised, other students may say there is low financial support they get, others may say it’s a lack of IT equipment, a lack of infrastructure, and others may say it’s the lack of expertise of the faculty. So your solutions depend on what you find, but a stress audit of undergraduate and graduate students would be a way of identifying the nature of their problems.

EJOP: Even though Romania is an emergent market, Romania research lacks visibility on the international arena. What strategies do you think our researchers should employ in order to become internationally-recognised and synchronised with scientific progress reached in economically-developed countries?

Cary L. Cooper: I think that the difficulty of course comes from the fact that Romanian is a minority language. What I think has to happen is what happened in certain Eastern European countries where a small group of people have got together and they have done very good quality research by looking at the literature and seeing what research had been done and tried to publish in international journals. In the stress field, Romanian researchers could publish in the International Journal of Stress Management, a journal that welcomes work from foreign countries, also from Eastern European countries, but of course the articles would have to be in English in order to be accepted. If it’s a good piece of work, it could be accepted and that would start the process. But I think in the sense of developing Eastern European countries in a new field like this, I consider it does require getting together and creating an association, a society of researchers. Those working together in a brand-new field might create their own little academy of scientists, and then try to write the articles they do, as well as in Romanian, but also in English. By submitting them to one or two journals, I think other scholars would be really interested in their work.

EJOP: We live in a hi-tech post-industrial society with ever-rising technological progress. Does communication paraphernalia (meant to ease our lives) help in reducing stress, or paradoxically, in maximizing it?

Cary L. Cooper: That’s a very good question! New technological innovations like e-mail, mobile phone, are actually creating more stress. Initially, I think we thought that those would help people, but actually what has been done in the work place, it’s been creating more stress because the new technology, like faxes, e-mail, texting, Ipod, mobile phone, all off these technologies, are creating more stress particularly on workers. People sending those messages and asking for more pieces of information of people are overloading them electronically. The technology is not sophisticated enough in a way which could tell the receiver of the e-mail, for example how important the message really is, so people are loaded with e-mails and people are demanding an immediacy of response. When it was by letter, you had time to think it through, to prioritize what came in, and seeing what’s important, what you could deal with now and what you should put away for another week or two. Now everybody is expecting an immediacy of response, a quick response, and that’s causing enormous trouble, adding more stress and strain. If these people had be trained to manage e-mails better, that would be a good move, but they are not, and what they do, they just get overloaded by it…So, electronical overload and being able to contact people 7 days a week and 24 hours a day by mobile phone is causing enormous problems in the workplace.

EJOP: In the consumer society in which workload and other organisational stressors have dramatically increased to the detriment of leisure time, can we still talk about attachment to traditional values such as family and religion?

Cary L. Cooper: I think what’s happening in many of the developed countries in the West, whether in North America or Western Europe, the problem you see is that we have a long working hours culture. These long hours and new technology are invading people’s personal life. Therefore, when you have employee surveys done at company or organisational level, you’re finding that thing that comes at the top – besides workplace stress itself – is lack of work-life balance. The family life is being eroded, for several reasons: one, work is long and it’s spilling over into the family life; number two, the technology means calling you and asking you to do things while you are home; and number three: the long hours mean you don’t have emotional time to devote to your partner or children, like we used to have when we had something called “the forty hour week”, which in the West we no longer have.

EJOP: It is largely accepted that humour is important in the workplace. There are already many humour consultants employed by both big corporations and small entrepreneurs. Could we consider positive adaptive humor as a stress antidote in the organisational environment?

Cary L. Cooper: Of course! Lightening the workload and trying to improve morale and make these people feel better and smiling and having a good time is quite important, but it doesn’t solve underlying problems. If the real problem in your organization is a bullying or autocratic management style, all the humour in the world is not going to get rid of that. What you actually have to attack is the underlying source of the problem, in that case a bullying or an autocratic management style. If you get people to come into the office and they do juggling and they crack jokes and they do things that make people feel good, but if there’s another problem, like, for example, say, the problem is a glass ceiling [i.e. limit on promotional opportunities] for women, the women can’t get ahead in an organization which is very male dominated, all the juggling and gesturing and comical and theatre you put on in the workplace is not going to solve that problem. You don’t want to cover up and some stress coping strategies are a cover up for real problems. I am not saying it is not nice to have humour in the workplace, it is nice, but it doesn’t solve the problems.

EJOP: Maladaptive uses of humor in the workplace, such as sarcasm, irony, teasing, may be considered as a form of bullying?

Cary L. Cooper: It could be! Putting other people down in a humorous way, it’s not just bullying, it’s devaluing somebody. In a way it is bullying, it’s psychological bullying. Bullying in the workplace has increased in the developed world, as Western Europe and Eastern Europe and the rest of the globe gets more americanised. I think that an American way of working tends to introduce a long hours culture, intrinsic job insecurity and it also brings in a kind of much more bottom line management style. Now what you are looking at is the bottom line always. And that thing can be very down-putting to people. So, I think that’s a very important construct – the notion that it is good to look at the US because it has very good aspects of its practices as organizational level, but there are also aspects in it which I think do not fit culturally into Europe.

EJOP: By your presence in TV and print media, you are a frequent contributor to the popularisation of stress issues. How important is for a scientist to advertise his research discoveries?

Cary L. Cooper: Very important, but the problem we have to understand is that some scientists are just not good at it. They are good at doing their research, are good at writing in the academic papers and books, but they are not necessarily good at talking to the media and conveying it in a popular way. We don’t have a lot of people who could do that, but whoever has the propensity to do it should do it because it’s important. First of all, our research is funded by the public sector, by government. We work in academic institutions, we are paid for by the people, therefore if you are capable of it, you should convey whatever your science field is in the eye of public. But we have to understand that not everybody could do this and probably only a very small minority can. That minority should not feel intimidated by the scholarly hierarchy within their own universities or country which doesn’t normally reward and in fact probably discourages communication with the media.

EJOP: Does a scientist need PR or marketing skills?

Cary L. Cooper: It requires media skills – to be on radio, to speak to journalists, to do television. A lot of universities, for example in the UK do put on media programs for its academics, because only few academics would be good at doing this. These programs need to be done more often, because I think if the public understand how important the research work we do is, the only way they could understand it is by hearing about what we do in more common language.

EJOP: Who are the science personalities whose masterpieces most deeply influenced your professional life?

Cary L. Cooper: In the stress field when I started it was pretty new. I guess somebody who influenced me a bit was Professor Leonard Levy in the Karolinskyan Institute of Sweden, he is now retired, he is a good friend of mine, and he influenced me indirectly. I didn’t know him at first, but I have read some of his work and although much of the beginning was fairly general, he was talking about the kind of things I was thinking about from a medical point of view, because he is a medical doctor. He was talking about what stress was doing to people’s health generally and I was working in the workplace. His work influenced me to think about this not just from an ordinary stress and health point of view, but from a workplace stress and health point of view.

EJOP: We know your mother was born in Romania. Do you feel connected in any way with Romanians? If yes, is there a message you would like to convey to our compatriots?

Cary L. Cooper: I feel totally connected, because my grandparents used to speak Romanian in the house. They spoke in English and Romanian. I felt very connected. It’s an irony that in all these years I‘ve been to Russia, and my father by the way, came from Russia and the Ukraine, but I haven’t been to Romania, so I must go to Romania. I felt close because my grandparents, first of all my grandmother used to make Romanian food and my grandmother spoke Romanian to her husband and my mother spoke Romanian and she used to speak back with them, my mother was born there, my grandparents were there, and my great grandparents were there, so I have a very strong connection that way. I just want to come to Romania and I will, I promise you.

EJOP: What is your message to Romanian professionals?

Cary L. Cooper: I think the future is in Europe and ultimately getting into the European Union. Your research work is very good; I would like to see all my scientific colleagues in Romania. I want to see them go on the world’s stage, like they are in athletics, in the gymnastics, like they are in certain other areas in the world; they can do it in the scholarly world as well. I am afraid that these days the international scientific language is English, you’ve got to do more work on English to get into the journals that would make a difference and would show just what kind of scholarships is going on in Romania.

Cary L. Cooper, May 2005

Phone interview by courtesy of Cary L. Cooper