What Is Role Strain? How It Differs From Role Conflict?

A role is a part or position a person plays within a family, community, or organization. People have many roles in life. For example, you are probably a father, husband, son, brother, friend, employee, church member, etc. One of the most common roles we play is an employee.

Strain within sociology is defined as an individual or group’s discontent within a social role or position. Social strain plays a significant role in the development of society overall. Let’s dive deeper into role strain in this article.

What Is Role Strain?

Role strain is a term used in sociology to describe the stress experienced by individuals expected to fulfill multiple roles in their lives. This might be a parent who must also work and meet other social obligations or a college student who must juggle classes, exams, part-time work, and social life. When people try to take on too many roles at once, it can cause stress and anxiety.

Role strains can affect all aspects of life, including family relationships, employment, school, and social life. Societal norms or expectations can cause role strains; however, they can also be caused by your standards and expectations.

Examples of Role Strain

As a mother

If you’re a mother, you might face role strain when you attempt to balance the competing demands of your role as a mother with your other roles. As a mother, you might have to care for an ill child and prepare breakfast for another child who must get ready for school. At the same time, your boss may be expecting you at work within the next hour. The stress that can occur from attempting to fulfill these seemingly incompatible roles is an example of role strain.

As a student

Role strain can occur in any individual’s role, whether student, employee, or parent. The following are some examples of role strain as a student:

  • The student suffers from family conflicts, which causes them to be distracted in their school work.
  • The student cannot obtain adequate study time due to a part-time job.
  • The student is emotionally unstable due to a break-up with a partner.

Any of these examples can cause the student to experience role strain as they cannot fulfill both roles successfully simultaneously.

As a wife

Wives who work outside of the home might experience role strain when balancing the demands of their job with their responsibilities as a spouse and parents. A wife may feel that her husband is left to do all the housework, leading to resentment. In addition, she might not be able to spend enough time with her children, which can cause role strain at home.

Role Strain vs. Role Conflict

Role strain is not the same as role conflict, although both concepts refer to the problems that arise when people try to manage multiple roles simultaneously. In role conflict, the problem is that two roles that a person has are incompatible or do not allow for adequate attention to be given to both roles.

For example, a person who works full-time and tries to start a family may find that she does not have enough time or resources to adequately take care of her children because she cannot spend time with them because of long working hours.

Another example is someone with two friends with different political views; if these friends do not get along, it creates a conflict for the person who wants to maintain relationships with each friend independently. 

Role Strain vs. Role Overload

Role strain refers to the stress and conflict that arises when you are unclear on how to play a particular role, while role overload refers to the stress and conflict that occurs when you have too many roles to play. Sources of role strain include:

  • A lack of clarity about what is expected of you within the role context.
  • Conflicting norms between the various roles you perform. For example, your boss may expect you to work overtime at work, but your spouse might expect you to be home for dinner every night.

Sources of role overload include:

  • Taking on too many roles. People often take on more than they can handle and then suffer from stress.
  • Having multiple people who depend upon you for support and assistance.

Role Strain vs. Role Ambiguity

Sociologist Robert K. Merton defines role strain as a person’s difficulty when attempting to fulfill their social role or roles. The word “strain” is used because it implies difficulty but not impossibility — even people with many different social roles may not experience much role strain, depending on the circumstances and how well they adapt.

On the other hand, role ambiguity describes situations where someone does not know what is expected of them in a given role — which is why it’s sometimes referred to as role confusion. This isn’t necessarily due to a lack of skill or knowledge — for example, someone might be unable to perform a task simply because no one has told them their duties or end goal.

Example: A new nurse may have difficulty understanding how her supervisor wants her to interact with patients when they are agitated. The nurse asks her supervisor to clarify how she should handle such situations, but the supervisor doesn’t know how to explain herself clearly. The nurse feels confused and frustrated because she doesn’t know what is expected of her and worries that she will make mistakes before she figures it out.

Effects: Role ambiguity can cause nurses to become stressed, withdrawn, and depressed because they don’t know how to perform their jobs well enough to avoid getting in trouble with their supervisors or making mistakes that could hurt

How to Cope With Role Strain?

Most of us have multiple roles to juggle in our lives. The more roles we take on, the more likely we will experience some conflict between them. How we handle this conflict determines whether or not role strain will occur. The following suggestions can help you reduce the likelihood that role strain will appear in your life:

  • Identify the cause of your role strain. If you don’t identify the cause, you won’t be able to develop a plan to resolve it.
  • Develop strategies to cope with and minimize the adverse effects of role strain in your life. For example, if your boss wants you to complete a project by Friday, but a coworker needs help on his project by Thursday, try delegating some of your work to others so you can help your coworker.
  • Review your current roles and responsibilities and determine if they can be dropped or modified.
  • Become more aware of how role conflicts may affect your ability to perform effectively in one or more of your roles.
  • Maintain a positive attitude toward your multiple roles and their potential for generating personal growth and satisfaction.
  • Write down your goals. It can be challenging to determine which roles are most important if you don’t have clear goals. Writing down your goals can help you prioritize the various roles you have.
  • Communicating with others. If an assignment causes stress, talk to your supervisor and coworkers about your feelings. Expressing your emotions will help you get things off your chest, and others may be able to help take some of the workload off of you.
  • Give yourself a break. Set aside time each day to relax so you can recharge and stay productive. It’s OK to put off responsibilities now and then if it means you’ll be able to handle them better later on.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, role theory and role strain significantly affect how an individual functions in society. When faced with role conflicts, individuals’ actions directly impact their subjective stress experiences. For example, if one is faced with having to perform as a parent and a worker simultaneously, one will experience stress. This strain is expected with any meaningful activity and is inherently built into being in society.

However, there are solutions to reducing role conflict and role strain. Simply knowing that there is strain associated with competing roles can help those who experience role conflict instead of falling apart or blaming others for the situation that they end up in.


  • Mobily, P. R. (1991). An examination of role strain for university nurse faculty and its relation to socialization experiences and personal characteristics. Journal of Nursing Education, 30(2), 73–80.
  • Kolagari, S., Zagheri Tafreshi, M., Rassouli, M., & Kavousi, A. (2014). Psychometric evaluation of the role strain scale: The Persian version. Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal, 16(9).

Hi, I am Happy. I'm a professional writer and psychology enthusiast. I love to read and write about human behaviors, the mind, mental health-related topics, and more.