Role Strain: Examples and Simple Definition (Sociology)

Role Strain: Examples and Simple Definition (Sociology)Reviewed by Chris Drew (PhD)

This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

role strain example and definition, explained below

Role strain (not to be confused with role conflict) refers to the stress an individual faces when failing to meet the expectations of a specific social role.

For example, a student who has to study for exams, finish assignments, and participate in co-curricular activities may feel overwhelmed by these various tasks. It is part of role theory, which sees life as an enactment of socially defined roles (doctor, husband, friend, etc.).

When there are excessive responsibilities associated with a role, it can lead to anxiety, emotional burnout, or even force one to leave the role. However, there are many strategies to deal with role strain, as we will discuss later.

First, let us learn about the concept in more detail and look at some examples.

Definition of Role Strain

William J. Goode defined role strain as 

“the felt difficulty in fulfilling role obligations.” (1960).

The concept of social role is crucial in sociology as it provides the nexus between social structure and individual behavior. The metaphor of a “role” comes from the theater, especially Shakespeare’s famous words in As You Like It:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players; 

People have many different sides, and the same person can act very differently in different roles. The degree of role strain felt depends on how important the role is for the person, how much they care about fulfilling societal expectations, the level of complexity of the role, as well as other factors. 

Role theory has now evolved to recognize the reciprocal nature of social roles: not only do preexisting roles shape individual behavior but the latter also recreate the former. That is, social interaction also affects the structure (Franks, 2007). 

Examples of Role Strain

  1. Teachers: Teachers need to play many roles (such as educator, counselor, employee, etc.) while also keeping up with technology. When all schools were physically shut during 2020, teachers faced incredible difficulties in switching to the online mode of education. Being forced to adopt a new form of communication and come up with appropriate teaching methods often led to stress & burnout. (Ducharme, 2020). Even in normal times, teachers have to juggle between educating students, maintaining discipline in class, and taking care of administrative tasks. At higher levels of education, professors also find it difficult to balance teaching with research & publishing.
  2. Entrepreneurs: As an entrepreneur, one has to balance several tasks, such as financial planning, employee management, marketing, etc., all of which can be quite stressful. Elon Musk has been known to work 80 to 100 hours per week and has revealed that he is constantly under stress. Jeff Bezos also works for long hours, and in his 2018 letter to shareholders, he confessed that it’s hard to balance business and personal relationships. Entrepreneurs need to be both business leaders as well as team players. They need to maintain a good public image but also deal with the realities of running a business. Many of these tasks often pull them in opposite directions. 
  3. Managers: Leading employees comes with various responsibilities that can cause role strain. Managers often supervise employees from various fields—say a creative director overseeing the copy, the art, and the production departments—and it requires them to be well-versed in all of them. Moreover, they also need to combine leadership with teamwork, that is, they need to be both stern supervisors but also kind friends. This can often pull them in different directions, leading to stress.
  4. Healthcare Worker: Healthcare workers have to deal with limited resources & long work hours, and crises like the 2020 world health crisis put even greater stress on them. In most third-world countries, hospitals (especially government ones) barely have any resources. Healthcare workers have to work long hours, and yet, because of the lack of medical facilities, they are often unable to help patients. During the 2020 world health crisis, there was a huge shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), which forced healthcare workers to risk their lives. Moreover, given the limited medical resources, they often had to make difficult decisions about allocating these.
  5. Students: At all levels of education, students need to juggle various activities. At the school level, students need to work on their academics, participate in co-curricular activities, and socialize with their peers. They are also expected to plan their career trajectory and work towards entering the right institutions. At higher levels, students need to balance studying with researching and attending academic events. All of this can be quite stressful for young people.
  6. Caregivers: Caregivers face significant role strain in both professional and non-professional contexts. In his comparative study of professional and non-professional caregivers, Edwards found that there was no significant difference in the amount of stress & depression between the two (2002). Scharlach also claims that professional caregiving is an inherently contradictory job because it requires one to balance professionalism & vulnerability. This is why caregivers often quit their job (known as the role exit) or try to reduce their work hours by adjusting their shifts.
  7. Doctors: Doctors are responsible for various difficult tasks, which can cause significant stress. For example, a doctor may have to perform complex surgeries, manage their clinical practice, and also supervise the trainees. On top of this, they may to have coordinate with the administration and also participate in research activities. In third-world countries, doctors face even greater challenges as there are limited resources and patients who cannot afford expensive treatments.
  8. Parents: Being a parent is perhaps the most straining personal role for a person. Parents have to devote a lot of time to their children, whether it is to help them with their homework or attend their school functions. This can be especially challenging if there are multiple children. A.M. Home calls family a “greedy” institution that demands exclusive loyalty, almost unlimited time commitment, and high flexibility. Women are especially expected to be good mothers and homemakers, even if it means sacrificing their education or work.
  9. Volunteers: Volunteering is seen as a selfless act, but it poses many challenges for individuals. They often have to spend a lot of time among vulnerable populations and high-stress environments, which can be emotionally draining. Volunteers have to work with limited resources and support. Moreover, they may often feel undervalued by their organization, which can lead to frustration and lack of motivation. Most volunteers also face role conflict, as it is difficult to manage other aspects of their life (family, school, work, etc.) with their volunteer work.
  10. Artists: Artists today have to not just create art but also spend a significant amount of time trying to market & sell it. Many early artists, especially those who are freelancers, have to devote a lot of time to non-creative tasks such as marketing, accounting, etc., which leaves them with less time for their creative work. Moreover, all artists have to always deal with the inevitable tradeoff between artistic aspirations & commercial imperatives. While today’s world offers many new mediums (social media, OTT platforms, etc.) for artists, they also come with new challenges. 

Challenges Faced During the Role Strain Process

Role strain poses many challenges, such as time constraints, emotional demands, etc., but there are coping strategies to deal with them.

Role strain occurs when a person finds it difficult to meet the expectations associated with a particular role. It causes various difficulties such as:

  • Time constraints: When a person is expected to perform various tasks, they may find it difficult to manage their time. This can get overwhelming and cause burnout.
  • Emotional Demands: Many roles (say a parent) are very demanding emotionally. Moreover, there are some roles that demand conflicting emotions; for example, the professional caretaker requires both professionalism & vulnerability.
  • Conflicting Expectations: At times, a single role itself may have conflicting expectations. For example, a manager is expected to both lead as well as be a team player; in other words, the conflict between supervision & friendliness can be hard be challenging.

However, sociologists point out that role strain is quite common in the modern world. There are several ways of coping with it:

  • Delegation: Handing over some tasks to other people. For example, a parent can hire a housekeeper or an artist can hire a manager.
  • Compartmentalization: Restricting roles to specific contexts, say limiting professional work to the office and not working at home.
  • Avoiding Interruptions: By avoiding interruptions, one can focus on a particular task properly. This can be done by blocking one’s calendar or asking the secretary to schedule meetings for later. 

Conclusion

Role strain refers to the stress caused by the excessive expectations of a single role.

Role strain poses challenges such as conflicting expectations, time constraints, emotional demands, etc. However, role strain is quite common in the modern world, and there are various strategies for dealing with it.

References

Bezos, J. (2018). 2018 letter to shareholders. Retrieved from https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1018724/000119312518121161/d456916dex991.htm

Ducharme, J. (2020, May 7). “‘It’s overwhelming’. Teachers confront hurdles to e-learning access amid corona”. Time. https://time.com/5832832/

Edwards, A. B., Zarit, S. H., Stephens, M. A. P., & Townsend, A. (2002). Employed family caregivers of cognitively impaired elderly: An examination of role strain and depressive symptoms. Aging & Mental Health. Routledge.

Franks, D. D. (2007). “Role” in (ed.) George Ritzer’s The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Blackwell. 
Goode, W. J. (1960). “A Theory of Role Strain.” American Sociological Review. SAGE Publications. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2092933.pdf

Sourabh Yadav is a freelance writer & filmmaker. He studied English literature at the University of Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University. You can find his work on The Print, Live Wire, and YouTube.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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