Role Overload and Underload

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. In fact, much has been written in the stress literature about role conflict and role ambiguity. Much less has been written, however, about the sheer amount of role demands that an employee may have. This entry will focus on two role stressors that have to do with the amount of role demands an employee possesses. Role overload occurs when employees simply have too much to do—in other words, their roles become too big. Role underload, on the other hand, occurs when employees have too little to do—in other words, their roles become too small.

How do roles develop?

To understand role overload and underload, 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, or tax accountants, and based on their knowledge of these jobs, they are likely 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.

All of the sources of role-related information for an employee are known as that person’s role set. Within an employee’s role set, some members are obviously more important than others (e.g., supervisor), but an employee must pay attention to all members. In an ideal world, the members of an employee’s role set would regularly meet to discuss the messages they are conveying and to make sure they are reasonable. Organizations, however, are not ideal, so it is possible that an employee may receive too many or too few role demands, or the demands of different members of the role set may be in conflict. The focus here will be role demands that are too big or too small.

Role overload: why do roles become too big?

Role overload occurs when an employee’s role simply becomes too demanding or too big. What exactly does it mean when a role becomes “too big” for the person occupying it? 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. One example of qualitative overload has to do with the inability to perform any task that is even remotely mechanical. For example, if something in the house is broken and needs to be repaired, one might become qualitatively overloaded.

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. This is particularly true when members of an employee’s role set exist both within and outside the organization.

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. Likewise, roles that require employees to regularly interact with people outside the organization (called boundary-spanning roles) tend to be bigger than roles in which all of the members of the role set are located within the organization.

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. When organizations conduct layoffs, it is typical for the roles of layoff survivors to become larger than they were before the layoff.

A final reason that role overload may occur is poor organizational or job design. For example, an organization may assign one clerical person to a work unit consisting of 25 people. It is almost inevitable that the clerical person in this scenario will experience at least some form of role overload.

Consequences of Role Overload

The vast majority of research on role stress has focused on role conflict and role ambiguity. In fact, there is so much research on these role stressors that more than one meta-analysis has been conducted to summarize the literature. What these meta-analyses have shown is that both role stressors are associated with negative psychological (e.g., job dissatisfaction, anxiety), physical (e.g., self-reported symptoms, sick days), and behavioral (e.g., decreased performance, increased absenteeism) outcomes.

The little research that has focused on role overload mirrors the findings for role conflict and role ambiguity. The differences are in the areas of physical symptoms and performance. On balance, role overload is more strongly related to physical symptoms and physical exhaustion than are other role stressors. This makes a great deal of sense, considering the nature of role overload and the fact that most research has measured role overload from a quantitative perspective.

The other difference is that, in contrast to other role stressors, role overload may be positively related to performance in some cases. In many cases, those who are the most competent and skilled are asked to take on more tasks and responsibilities than others within the organization. It may also be a result of the nature of the job in some cases. A person selling real estate, for example, will be much busier and overloaded during periods in which his or her sales commissions are highest.

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. Admittedly, though, more research needs to be done on individual difference moderators of the effect of role overload and other stressors.

What about role underload?

Little research has examined role overload, and even less has examined role underload. Intuitively, though, it makes sense that if people can have too much to do, they can have too little to do as well. Like role overload, role underload can likely be viewed from both a quantitative and a qualitative perspective. An employee who is experiencing quantitative underload simply has too few tasks to do, and thus may experience periods of idleness or boredom on the job. Though many workers may wish they occasionally had a day when they had too few tasks to accomplish at work, most would probably become bored if this were the case every day.

When an employee is qualitatively underloaded, he or she has enough things to do, but the nature of the work tasks are below his or her capabilities. Most people have experienced qualitative underload at some point in their working lives. Many college students, for example, hold part-time or summer jobs at which they are required to perform tasks (e.g., washing dishes, waiting tables) that are likely far below their intellectual capabilities. It is also the case that when the job market is tight, workers are often forced to accept jobs for which they are overqualified, and thus they may be subject to some degree of qualitative role underload.

As the examples in the previous paragraph suggest, role underload may be attributable to circumstance in some cases. It is also possible, however, that organizations may deliberately design jobs to be as simple as possible, and these jobs have high potential for role underload. Research on job design has shown that simplifying jobs may increase efficiency and decrease an organization’s labor costs because skill requirements are reduced.

What is the impact of role underload? Though there is little research on role underload, research on job design suggests that in general, it should result in negative affective reactions such as job dissatisfaction. For example, employees who hold low-complexity jobs (very similar to role underload) tend to report much lower job satisfaction than employees who hold more complex jobs. However, responses to role underload may differ from employee to employee. Some people may find it very difficult to have too little to do, whereas others may be less bothered or even enjoy it. Readers can probably think of people they know who vary on this dimension.

Summary and Conclusions

This entry has described two important sources of stress in organizational settings—role overload and role underload. Both of these stressors have been studied far less than other role stressors, but there is some evidence that they may lead to negative outcomes for employees. Employees, however, may vary as to how they respond to role overload or underload. Given the causes of both stressors, organizations can take steps to reduce them through job redesign and job enrichment.


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