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What is Role Strain? Definition and Examples

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Sept 27, 2021

Key Takeaways: Role Strain

  • Societies consist of social roles — a set of attitudes and behaviors expected of someone who occupies a specific position or performs a social function — and people in societies must take up these roles for their society to function.
  • Role strain describes the stress that result from the differing demands and expectations associated with a social role.
  • Role conflict refers to the psychological effect of the situation when role expectations pressure a person to take on different behaviors.

Definition and Overview

Role strain refers to the stress when, for any number of reasons, an individual cannot meet the demands of their social roles (Goode 1960).

Role strain happens when someone has multiple overlapping, incompatible roles, and thus taking on one roll interferes with their performance in another.

For example, someone taking on the roles of parent, manager, caretaker, and writer may experience role strain because these roles combined may take up more time and resources than that person has or require that person to be in multiple places simultaneously.

As a result, the person is unable to perform these roles as well as they could if they had fewer roles (Creary & Gordon 2016). Goode (1960) was the first sociologist to introduce the concept of role strain as difficulty in meeting the expectations of roles.

In Goode’s view, individuals make a series of bargains within societies about what roles they will take on and perform either well or poorly in any role. Role strain is a normal or perhaps inevitable consequence of balancing multiple at times conflicting, ambiguous, or overwhelming roles, and that the task for everyone in a society is to figure out how to reduce this strain.

Role Strain vs. Role Conflict

This theory of role strain separates two concepts. The first is role overload, which sociologists have more recently expanded to include role ambiguity and role conflict (Gutek et al. 1988).

Role overload, role ambiguity, and role conflict all refer to the state of, for example, having a role that requires too much time and energy (role overload) or roles with contradictory demands (role conflict).

Role conflict occurs when the statuses and roles someone occupies contain simultaneous, completing, or contradictory expectations (Kahn et. al 1964, Edwards 2002). For example, someone who must be distant in one role may conflict with another role where they must show affection.

On the other hand, role overload happens when someone fills multiple roles simultaneously and struggles to meet these roles’ demands as a result. For example, a full-time student may simultaneously struggle to care for young children.

Role overload can also result from a role that exceeds the abilities and motivation of a person to fill it comfortably. A consultant working 14 hour days on a project completely unfamiliar to them may face role overload (Creary & Gordon 2016).

Although the terms role overload and role conflict are sometimes used interchangeably by psychologists, these are two distinct concepts. While role conflict results from someone holding multiple roles that conflict with each other, role overload is a result of the overbearing demands of each role.

For example, someone who must miss his child’s graduation for work may experience role conflict (as each role requires him to be in a different place at once), but not role overload (he may have enough ability and motivation to both meet the demands of work and caring for a child).

Typically, psychologists measure role overload with the 13-question Likert scale, which includes items such as, ”I have to do things that I do not really have the time or energy for” and “There are too many demands on my time” (Reilly 1982).

Lastly, role ambiguity, in contrast to role conflict and role overload, refers to a lack of clear information regarding the expectations of a role, how to fulfill these expectations, or the consequences of role performance (Mobily 1991).

A worker who has no information regarding how he can get promoted may have role ambiguity.

Role strain refers to the actual psychological stress caused by one’s roles. Role conflict, role ambiguity, and role overload can cause role strain in combination with each other or alone; however, someone cannot have role conflict, role ambiguity, or role overload without having role strain, as these are all areas of role strain (Mobily 1991).

The consequences of role strain from role conflict, role ambiguity, and role overload are similar. They all can result in worsened physical and mental health as well as poor familial and professional relationships (Creary & Gordon 2016).

Contrary to Goode’s assumptions, not everyone who has multiple roles have signs of role conflict or overload (Waldron & Jacobs 1989), and some might even have higher levels of energy or other resources that can help them meet the demands of other roles. This theory is called role expansion (Marks 1977). Nonetheless, role strain, and the more encompassing topic of role theory, form a common basis for which sociologists study norms and behavior.

Managing Role Strain

Implicit in Goode’s (1960) theory of role strain is that everyone must manage its effects. Sociologists such as Bird and Bird (1986) have measured the efficacy of several role-management strategies in the work and family context. These have varying amounts of efficacy.

  1. The legitimate excuse — asserting that another responsibility of equal or higher priority prevents the individual from fulfilling a new task or completing one is not perceived as a legitimate response for employees (Marks 1977) but is in informal situations.
  2. Stalling - this involves putting off a task before obligations can either be fulfilled or left undone and is most successful when the pressure to perform two or more roles is temporary (Toby 1952). For example, it may be possible to put off deciding until demands are relaxed.
  3. Compartmentalization - this involves restricting roles to a certain location or context. For example, one may only do work while at their office, and not check emails at home, where the new dominant role is the one of a parent, spouse, or household manager.
  4. Barriers against intrusion - These are strategies proposed by Goode (1960) to prevent others from initiating or continuing role relationships. For example, making appointments can be delegated to a secretary. This can also take the form of making definite plans for using time that no other activities can interfere with.
  5. Reduce responsibilities - people could change their standards of performance in a role to have more time available for responsibilities or to perform tasks in other roles. They may also refuse to accept additional responsibilities in a role, saying that they already have too many responsibilities.
  6. Delegation - here, a person assigns the tasks of a role to another. For example, a mother could hire a nanny or an older child to care for her children.
  7. Organization - this involves ranking the order of importance of various activities and doing the most important ones first (Hall 1972), and finally, empathy as a role strain reducing strategy describes building social support between people sharing the same roles and circumstances. For example, a group of students could provide mutual support in managing the responsibilities of their education.


Role strain can result from any number of roles — such as a parent, spouse, student, or caregiver — and these roles can create, to name a few areas of role strain, role conflict, role overwhelm, or role ambiguity.

Family-to-work conflict and Role Strain

Role conflict between one’s family and one’s work is called “work-family conflict.” Typically, sociologists measure role conflict in two directions (Creary & Gordon 2016).

Work roles can create conflicts with one’s family roles (work-to-family conflict) and one’s family roles can create conflict with one’s work (family-to-work conflict).

As a result, sociologists call work-family conflict bidirectional or reciprocal (Creary & Gordon 2016). Balancing a job with caring for children and managing household chores can cause significant family-to-work conflict.

The care of young children requires significant time and mental resources, in the same vein as having a job. Those who lack sufficient resources may struggle to fill the responsibilities of both roles, and this can have negative effects on both physical and mental health (Creary & Gordon 2016).

For example, single working mothers experience role strain at higher rates than their married counterparts, as they have to take on full child-rearing and breadwinning responsibilities.

Consequently, single mothers experience depression and anxiety at twice the rate of their partnered counterparts (Liang 2018). However, role strain does not affect every single mother who has the same roles in the same way.

Those whose workplaces are more flexible (for example, through flexible hours and remote work) and those who have a “leaner” concept of motherhood (for example, in taking less direct control over their children’s lives) experience less role strain than those with strict workplaces and rigid ideas of motherhood (Gasse 2020).

Other factors can exacerbate family-to-work conflict and consequently role strain in parents. A migrant background, having toddler-aged children, young maternal age, and previous maltreatment and lack of social support all contribute to role strain.

Indeed, these are also psychosocial risk factors for depression and anxiety (Liang 2018).

Work-to-family conflict and role strain

Work-to-family conflict can occur when the demands of one’s job make it so that one cannot fill their family roles adequately. For example, working long hours at a job may cause a parent to neglect their childcare responsibilities.

Recent research suggests that work-family conflict and family-work concepts can be interrelated. For example, someone who has low control over their decisions, job stress, high amounts of involvement in their job, or who must care for a family member unexpectedly could come in conflict with their work, and the same factors could lead to conflict with family (Creary & Gordon 2016).

Because work-to-family conflict and family-to-work can overlap, sociologists such as Carlson and Frone (2003) have used scales to evaluate the directionality of work-family conflict.

This means that these scales measure the extent that the demands of work interfere with family life and the demands of family life interfere with work (Creary & Gordon 2016).

Work-family conflict creates role strain as these conflicting roles lead to negative psychological effects. Hospital employees experiencing behavior-based work-family conflict have lower levels of job satisfaction (Bruck et. al 2002).

A family situation that requires an emotional response may strain a doctor who must be neutral in delivering a negative prognosis to patients.

Work-to-family conflict, but not family-to-work conflict, is associated with greater levels of absenteeism, especially in those whose gender and relation to others leads to a greater assumption of responsibility in the family (Boyar 2005).

Those who experience high levels of work-family conflict also report lower job performance and greater intention to leave their organization (Boshoff 2002).

Work-to-family conflict can also cause lower levels of life satisfaction, burnout, stress-related illnesses, and generally reduced health and well-being (Creary & Gordon 2016).

Role Strain and Professional Caregiving

Those who care for elderly adults can experience significant role strain in either a professional or family context. Edwards (2002) compared professional and non-professional caregivers and found that there were no significant differences between the amounts of role overload, strain, and depression between them.

However, other studies, such as Scharlach (1994) claim that caregiving and employment are contradictory roles that create behavioral role strain, as employees must balance professionalism with vulnerability.

In both situations, caregiving can commonly create strain, with effects such as role exit (a caregiver leaving their job) or shifting schedule to reduce their work hours (Edwards 2002).

Role Strain in Students

Among students, role strain can come both from the responsibilities and expectations of being a student in itself and competing roles, and these competing roles can be as far-ranging as parenthood, work, and family to race.

Home (1997) found, for example, that female nursing students who have higher perceived responsibilities in their roles experience greater levels of stress and role strain.

Role strain has a greater effect when these roles are between education and family. Both education and family, Home says, are “greedy” institutions that demand exclusive loyalty, virtually unlimited time commitments, and high flexibility, and that women are expected to show that neither role suffers because of the other.

As a result, family and education roles can lead to high levels of overload and frequent role conflict, particularly when students have little social support.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

How to reference this article:

Nickerson, C. (2021, Sept 27). What is role strain? definition and examples. Simply Psychology.


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