What Is Role Strain? Definition and Examples

Feeling Over-Committed? It Could Be Role Strain

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If you've ever felt stressed trying to meet the obligations of a social role, you might have experienced what sociologists call role strain.

Role strain is actually very common, as we often find ourselves trying to fulfill multiple roles that call for different sets of behaviors simultaneously. According to sociologists, there are different types of role strain, as well as a variety of coping mechanisms.

Key Takeaways: Role Strain

  • Role strain occurs when we have trouble meeting the social roles expected of us.
  • People can also experience both role conflict (when two roles have demands that are mutually exclusive) and role overload (when one doesn't have the resources to meet the demands of multiple roles).
  • Role strain is thought to be a common experience in modern society, and people engage in a variety of strategies to cope with role strain.

Definition and Overview

Role strain is based on the idea of role theory, which sees social interactions as shaped by our roles. While different researchers have defined roles differently, one way to think of a role is as a "script" that guides how we act in a particular situation. Each of us has numerous roles that we play (e.g. student, friend, employee, etc.), and we may act differently depending on which role is salient at the time. For example, you'd likely behave differently at work than you would with friends, because each role (employee vs. friend) calls for a different set of behaviors.

According to Columbia University sociologist William Goode, trying to fulfill these roles can result in role strain, which he defined as "the felt difficulty in fulfilling role obligations." Because we often find ourselves in a variety of social roles, Goode suggested that experiencing role strain is actually normal and typical. In order to meet these role demands, Goode suggested, people engage in a variety of trade-offs and bargaining processes, in which they try to fulfill their roles in an optimal way. These trade-offs are based on several factors, such as how much we care about fulfilling society's expectations for us in the role (our level of "norm commitment"), how we think the other person involved will react if we don't fulfill a role, and more generalized societal pressures to fulfill certain roles.

Role Strain vs. Role Conflict

Related to role strain is the idea of role conflict. Role conflict occurs when, due to their social roles, people face two demands which are mutually exclusive. Generally speaking, sociologists talk about role strain when people experience stress in one role, while role conflict occurs when two (or potentially more than two) roles are at odds with each other (though, in practice, role strain and role conflict can and do co-occur). For example, role strain might occur if a sleep-deprived new parent experiences stress while navigating the challenges of having a baby. Role conflict might occur if a working parent has to choose between attending a PTA meeting and an important work meeting because both events are scheduled at the same time.

Another key idea is role overload, the experience of having many social roles to meet, but not having the resources to meet all of them. For example, imagine the case of someone trying to study for exams (the role of a student), work at a campus job (the role of an employee), plan meetings for a student organization (the role of a group leader), and participate in a team sport (the role of an athletic team member).

How People Cope With Role Strain

According to Goode, there are several ways in which people can try to reduce the stress of navigating multiple social roles:

  1. Compartmentalizing. People may try to not think about the conflict between two different roles.
  2. Delegating to others. People may find someone else who can help with some of their responsibilities; for example, a busy parent might hire a housekeeper or childcare provider to assist them.
  3. Giving up a role. Someone may decide that a particularly difficult role isn't essential and may give up the role or switch to a less demanding one. For example, someone who works long hours might quit their demanding job and look for a role with better work-life balance.
  4. Taking on a new role. At times, taking on a new or different role can help to reduce role strain. For example, a promotion at work might come with new responsibilities, but it could also mean that the person is no longer responsible for the lower-level details of their prior job.
  5. Avoiding unnecessary interruptions while working in a role. Someone might establish times that they are not to be interrupted, which will allow them to devote their full attention to a particular role. For example, if you're focusing on a large work project, you might block off your calendar and tell others that you will be unavailable for those hours.

Importantly, Goode acknowledged that societies aren't static, and, if people experience role strain, it can result in social change. For example, recent efforts to advocate for paid parental leave in the United States could be seen as a result of the role conflict experienced by many working parents.

Example: Role Conflict and Role Overload for Working Parents

Working parents (especially working mothers, due to socialized expectations about women's roles as caregivers) often experience role strain and role conflict. In order to better understand the experiences of working mothers—and to uncover factors that might be linked to less role conflict—researcher Carol Erdwins and her colleagues were interested in assessing the factors related to role conflict and role overload in working mothers. In a survey of 129 mothers, the researchers found that feeling supported by one's spouse and one's work supervisor was linked to lower levels of role conflict. The researchers also found that feeling a sense of self-efficacy (a belief that one is able to achieve one's goals) at work was linked to lower role conflict, and that feeling a sense of self-efficacy about parenting was linked to lower role overload. Although this study was correlational (and can't demonstrate whether there is a causal relationship between the variables), the researchers suggested that cultivating self-efficacy could be a way to help people who are experiencing role strain.

Sources and Additional Reading