Article: Role overload as a trigger for Organisational Stress

Employee Engagement

Role overload as a trigger for Organisational Stress

The organisational consequences of stress are best avoided by adopting a stress management culture in the organisation requiring the buy-in of both management and staff.
Role overload as a trigger for Organisational Stress

According to a research from Safe Work Australia, workplace stress and the resulting absenteeism, cost the economy a total of $14.81 billion in 2007, the last time figures were gathered. Two-thirds of this cost was falling on employers, who were forced to absorb the expense of lost productivity.

As mentioned in International Journal of Asian Social Science, there is a study on The Influence of Role-Overload, Role-Conflict and Role ambiguity on Occupational Stress among 135 Nurses from the emergency and surgery departments at Yasuj hospitals in South-West of Iran. The result showed that the level of occupational stress was relatively high. The result also showed that there was a significant, linear and positive relationship between role overload, role conflict, role ambiguity and occupational stress.

A high 46% of the workforce in organisations in India suffers from some or the other form of stress, according to the latest data from Optum, a top provider of employee assistance programmes to corporates. Optum's study had a sample size of 200,000 employees (over 30 large employers) who took an online Health Risk Assessment during the first quarter of 2016. 

Employee role overload negatively impacts the organization’s bottom line, and reducing this form of stress can yield the greatest bang for the buck for both employers and employees, says Linda Duxbury, a professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University. According to her research, Companies will face a talent market shortage by 2016. There will be a deficit of 800,000 skilled staff and a surplus of 500,000 low-skilled labourers.

In any organizational setting, a role represents a set of behavioral expectations that are assigned to one organizational member. In typical organizations, it is rarely the case that each employee has one clearly defined role that is recognizable and distinct from the roles of other organizational members.

Rather, in most organizations, employees may hold multiple roles, the roles of different employees may overlap and occasionally conflict, and roles may change from time to time. Because of the complexity of organizational roles, they can be a source of stress for employees.

Role overload occurs when employees simply have too much to do—in other words, their roles become too big. First, it is helpful to consider how roles develop in organizations. Most people enter organizations with at least some idea of what their role will be. People may be hired to be teachers, bank tellers, college professors, etc., and based on their knowledge of these jobs, they are likely to have some idea of what the role responsibilities will entail. In addition to these expectations, new employees often receive formal job descriptions and communicate with their immediate supervisor regarding role and performance expectations. Other employees (both peers and subordinates) may also communicate their expectations regarding a new employee’s role. Role overload may occur in a strictly quantitative sense. That is, the person who occupies a role may simply have more items on his or her to-do list than can be accomplished in the available period of time. Most people, either at work or at home, feel overloaded in this fashion from time to time.

It is also possible for role overload to occur in a more qualitative sense. In this case, an employee may have enough time to accomplish his or her tasks, but the tasks may be too difficult to handle. From a role theory perspective, there are several different explanations for role overload.

In many cases, there is little or no communication between the members of an employee’s role set. An employee’s supervisor, coworkers, subordinates, and in some cases, customers all make demands on an employee without necessarily knowing the demands of other members of the role set.  

Another reason may have to do with the role itself. Some roles are inherently bigger than others regardless of what organizations do. In most organizations, roles that involve the supervision of others tend to be larger than roles that do not have any supervisory responsibilities.

Temporary circumstances may also lead to role overload. Suppose, for example, that a work group consists of four employees, and one employee quits. In most organizations, the departing employee will eventually be replaced, but this typically takes some time. In the meantime, other members of the work group may be asked to pick up the slack and take on the work left by the departing employee. A final reason that role overload may occur is poor organizational or job design. Role-related demands, lack of resources, lack of support and insufficient time to keep abreast with overall job demands are frequently reported as the sources of stress among employees.

Work related stress is of growing concern because it has significant economic implications for organisations through employee’s dissatisfaction, lowered productivity and lowered emotional and physical health. Stressed employees are reported as showing withdrawal behaviour such as a cynicism toward work, lack of organizational commitment and intention to leave the workplace. 

Occupational stress is a serious phenomenon that refers to any characteristic of workplace that makes a threat for employees. Job stress has destructive consequences on both individual and organization. The negative effects of stress on individuals are tiredness, depression, anxiety, sleep disorders and difficulty in making decision. Also, stress leads to low productivity, dissatisfaction, low commitment, absenteeism, and employee’s turnover in organizations. It is generally believed that moderate levels of strain can stimulate creativity and encourage effort, while excessive levels of stress are liable to inhibit creativity and dissipate effort. Strain may unlock hidden reserves of energy for contingencies and emergencies. Organisational consequences of stress:

  • High staff turnover & recruitment costs which is, perhaps, the most common of the organisational consequences of stress. 
  • High absenteeism levels as stressed individuals tend to experience more illness and so take more time off due to illness.
  • Reduced productivity levels because fatigue sets in, concentration and motivation levels drop.
  • Increased training costs which is a  result of higher staff turnover and hence, more induction courses are required.
  • Increased health and safety issues because Employees tend to take more risks and suffer poorer concentration when they are stressed.
  • Reputational damage by the culture of stress which can develop as a result of the failure to manage stress at both an organisational and individual level.


When considering the effect of role overload, it is important to consider that the impact of role overload may vary from employee to employee. People who manage their time very well, those who have a great deal of help and support from others, and those who simply do not view being overloaded as negative probably do not respond to this stressor as negatively as others. Whereas, the organisational consequences of stress arise due to the failure to manage stress at both the organisational and individual levels. A culture of stress can soon develop with many damaging consequences for the organisation. Where such a culture has developed there is no quick fix solution for the organisation. The organisational consequences of stress are best avoided by adopting a stress management culture in the organisation requiring the ‘buy-in’ of both management and staff. Admittedly, though, more research needs to be done on individual difference moderators of the effect of role overload and other stressors.

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Topics: Employee Engagement, #Culture

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