Role overload is an important form of role stress that can overwhelm individuals and has been linked to a wide range of physical and psychological symptoms of stress. Research on role overload has, however, been fragmented and there has been little attempt to develop the associated theory. Inconsistent results linking role overload and perceived stress and a growing interest in positive and negative outcomes from stressful encounters suggest a different approach is warranted to examine how and why stress should arise from mismatching role expectations and how and why it might vary.
exploratory case study applies qualitative methodology to examine the relationship between role overload and perceived stress. Using stress, appraisal and coping theory (Lazarus and Folkman, 1984) as a guiding lens, this study seeks to model the process and the contextual conditions that contribute to variable stress reactions to role overload at work and at home. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with twenty female health care workers from four hospitals in a major city. The interviews explored the nature of two contrasting role overload experiences recalled by these individuals.
The findings from this research suggest that whilst the role overload appraisal and coping process maps closely to the cognitive stress model of Lazarus and Folkman (1984), important areas of difference also exist. The differences include situation properties that are specific and unique to role overload; an internal role pressure that plays an important part in the perception of role overload; modified interpretations of challenge and threat appraisals; a focus on demand reduction versus demand management coping strategies; coping strategies specific to role overload; and four distinct
types of role overload episodes.
The case study concludes with the development of a framework of the role overload appraisal and coping process. The framework includes a taxonomy of role overload situation properties and a typology of role overload coping strategies, Finally, the study identified factors that distinguish overwhelming from not-overwhelming episodes of role overload, as well as the factors that distinguish the role overload episodes described by individuals with high levels of stress from those described by people with low stress levels.