Role Strain vs Role Conflict (Similarities and Differences)

role strain vs role conflict

Role strain and role conflict are related concepts representing difficulties faced by individuals in fulfilling social roles. 

Both concepts are part of role theory, a concept in sociology that sees everyday activities as enactments of socially defined roles (manager, husband, friend, etc.). Metaphorically, life is visualized as a theatre, where all of us are playing different roles in different contexts.

The theory states that, in modern societies, there is a division of labor. This manifests as the interaction of heterogeneous specialized positions, which are known as roles. Each role comes with permitted forms of behavior, which are shared across society and determine expectations.

The actors occupying a role conform to its expectations because there are rewards and punishments associated with them. They also get the satisfaction of acting in a socially approved way. Therefore, they are willing to incur costs to fulfill the expectations. 

When these expectations become overwhelming or are in conflict, then we have role strain and role conflict. Let us discuss the two concepts in more detail with examples before looking at related ideas, such as role ambiguity

Role Strain vs Role Conflict (Table Summary)

Role StrainRole Conflict
DefinitionThe stress an individual faces when failing to meet the expectations of a specific social role.The stress an individual faces when facing conflicting demands from multiple social roles. It refers to the ‘conflict’ faced by two competing roles that you feel you need to maintain.
CauseCaused by the non-fulfillment of societal expectations.Caused by the non-fulfillment of societal expectations.
ExampleA person who recently got a promotion feels imposter syndrome and in over his head.A mother feels conflict between being a good employee and a good mother. She feels guilty for being at work instead of at home with her kids, but also needs to work to feed her kids.

Role Strain Definition

Role strain refers to the stress an individual faces when failing to meet the expectations of a specific social role.

The American sociologist William J. Goode defined role strain as:

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

When talking about role strain, sociologists usually refer to the tension experienced by individuals due to the demands of a single role. This occurs when the role’s demands are beyond the capabilities of the actor or are in conflict. 

A role itself consists of several role partners (Scott, 2014). For example, a teacher has to interact with students, parents, administrators, etc., each of whom has different expectations from the individual. 

Sometimes, these expectations can conflict with each other. For example, a wealthy student’s parents may have a strong influence on the administration, which may force the teacher to act in a biased manner toward them. 

Some more examples include:

Examples of Role Strain

  • Professional caregivers: Caregivers can experience a significant role strain in both professional and non-professional contexts. Scharlach claims that professional caregiving is inherently contradictory as it forces the individual to combine professionalism with vulnerability (1994). Edwards points out that professional as well non-professional caregiving lead to the same levels of strain & depression.
  • Students: As students, young people have to handle a variety of tasks, which can often get overwhelming. They have to complete assignments, often have a campus job, and may also be a part of team sports/student groups. Therefore, they have multiple sub-roles (student, employee, team player, group member, etc.) within their role as a student, which can cause excessive stress.
  • Managers: Being a manager involves juggling supervision with friendliness, which can cause role strain. For example, a supervisor at a factory has to keep a watchful eye over the employees. Yet, he also needs to maintain a friendly relationship and act as a mentor to all his subordinates. This requires him to combine professional sternness with non-professional friendliness, and this can cause him to experience role strain.
  • Doctors: Doctors often face role strain due to the excessive & conflicting demands of their role. They have to work for long hours, handle a large number of patients, and also adapt themselves to the latest medical technology. Plus, they are expected to balance these with administrative tasks, medical regulations, etc. All of this can result in burnout, decreased job satisfaction, and potentially an eventual role exit.
  • Parents: Being a parent can be an incredibly difficult role. They need to provide physical, emotional, and financial support to their children, which also comes with the societal pressure of meeting certain standards. Being a parent also requires one to do household work and have a well-paying job. All of this can cause a lot of stress and result in role strain.

Read our Full Guide on Strain Theory Here

Role Conflict Definition

Role conflict refers to the stress an individual faces when facing conflicting demands from multiple social roles. 

J.R. Rizzo defines it in the following way:

“Role conflict refers to the experience of an individual who perceives that two or more roles or expectations associated with different statuses are incompatible or in opposition to each other.” (1970)

All of us occupy multiple social roles such as a friend, a parent, an employee, etc. Role conflict occurs when we are pulled in different directions by the roles we hold (Gerber, 2010). This stress can negatively impact an individual’s personal life and job satisfaction. Some examples are:

Examples of Role Conflict

  • Teenage parenthood: A teenage parent has to face very opposing demands. On the one hand, being a teenager, they are not a fully-grown adult; yet, they also need to act like an adult and take care of their child. Role conflict is often measured by comparing the extent of contrast between different roles, and in this case (teenage vs parenthood), the contrast is quite huge. So, there will be tremendous role conflict.
  • Choosing Profession vs Family: This kind of role conflict occurs when an individual’s professional duties and personal feelings are pitted against each other. For example, a small town gets struck by a tornado. Now, a police officer working there may be forced to choose between his roles as a father (going home and taking care of his family) and an employee (working with the police to ensure the town’s safety).
  • Individual-personality conflict:  Individual personality occurs when “aspects of an individual’s personality conflict with other aspects of that same individual’s personality” (Truett). For example, an individual may value autonomy but his professional role may require strict adherence to rules. In such a case, the individual’s sense of identity gets challenged, which can cause stress and frustration. Therefore, it is usually best for individuals to choose roles that are in line with their values.
  • Family-work: This conflict is bidirectional: work roles can go against family roles, and family roles can also go against work roles (Creary & Gordon 2016). Having a job while also taking care of children, doing household chores, and maintaining personal interests (hobbies, socialization, etc.) can be tremendously difficult. It becomes even more difficult in the case of single parents, who face a higher rate of mental health issues (Liang 2018).
  • Teacher-parent conflict: This conflict occurs when a teacher is also a parent. As a professional, the individual has to fulfill their teaching requirements like giving lessons, grading assignments, maintaining discipline, etc. However, sometimes their students may be studying in the same school. In such a case, they might feel conflicted about being a professional teacher and a loving parent.
  • Sickness: When you’re sick, you often have to occupy both a sick role (i.e. society expects you to go home and get well) as well as your normal roles, like going to work, which you need to fulfill to pay the bills.

See more Role Conflict Examples Here

Role Strain vs Role Conflict Similarities & Differences

Role strain and role conflict both refer to stress caused by societal expectations although they are associated with different sources.

In our everyday life, we enact different social roles. Each of these roles comes with different expectations that we must fulfill.  When we struggle to work according to the “approved” behavior of these roles, we face the stress of either role strain or role conflict. 

So, both of these are caused by the non-fulfillment of societal expectations. However, their exact sources are different.

Often the two terms are used interchangeably. However, sociologists usually use role strain when talking about the stress caused by a single role. On the other hand, role conflict refers to the stress caused by two or more roles conflicting with each other.

Strategies for Dealing With Role Strain and Role Conflict

Goode (1960) argued that facing role strain is quite normal, and individuals must engage in a variety of trade-offs to juggle their roles optimally. 

This bargaining depends on how much one cares about fulfilling societal expectations, how we expect the other party to react to our non-adherence, etc. Goode suggested that people deal with role strain in several ways, such as :

  • Compartmentalizing: They try to restrict their roles to specific contexts. For example, they only work at the office and don’t even check their mail at home (prioritizing the spouse/parent role).
  • Delegation/Resignation: They may give some of their responsibilities to other individuals, say a working parent hiring a caretaker. Or, they may altogether leave a position, and, if needed, take a new role that is less stressful.
  • Avoiding interruptions: They may block out time to focus on a single role, say a manager avoiding meetings while working on an important project. In this way, they can complete all tasks associated with one role (employee) and then focus on another (parent).

For more on the sociological concept of roles, read the fascinating theory of dramaturgy.


Role strain and role conflict are both stresses caused by societal expectations; however, they are caused by single and multiple roles respectively. 

Role strain occurs when a single role makes excessive demands on an individual. In contrast, role conflict happens when multiple roles are at odds with one another. Both of these negatively impact an individual, causing decreased job satisfaction and/or mental health issues.


Creary, S. J., & Gordon, J. R. (2016). Role conflict, role overload, and role strain. Encyclopedia of family studies, 1-6.

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, 6(1), 55-61. doi:10.1080/13607860120101149

Gerber, Linda M.; Macionis, John J. (2010). Sociology (7th Canadian ed.). Pearson Canada.

Goode, William J. (1960). “A Theory of Role Strain.” American Sociological Review, vol. 25, no. 4.

Liang, L. A., Berger, U., & Brand, C. (2019). Psychosocial factors associated with symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress among single mothers with young children: A population-based study. Journal of affective disorders, 242.

Scharlach, A. E. (1994). Caregiving and employment: competing or complementary roles? The gerontologist, 34(3), 378-385.

Scott, John (2014). A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford. 

Truett, C. (1979). Women in Educational Administration: Is There a Basic Role Conflict? Speeches Meeting Papers, 1–2.

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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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