This study investigated the prevalence of psychological distress, burnout, coping strategies, and their associations with demographic factors among primary school teachers in southeast Nigeria. To our knowledge, this is the first study evaluating psychological distress and burnout, the use of coping strategies, and their associations with demographics. The results showed that the overall prevalence of psychological distress and burnout was 69.9% (176 of 253 teachers) and 36.0% (91 of 253 teachers). Therefore, a high proportion of primary school teachers suffered from mental health symptoms. The prevalence of psychological distress was higher than the reported prevalence in previous studies [4, 20, 45].
In the school environment, primary school teachers are overwhelmed with meeting the pupils’ learning, social needs, and some cases, health needs. The teachers’ inability to fulfill these needs may lead to psychological distress. Also, a perceived lack of control or uncertainty over pupils’ misbehaviors or dysfunctional behaviors may create depressive and anxiety symptoms in teachers [5, 6]. The unavailability of instructional resources in resource-constrained settings, limited incentives, and a lack of administrative and parental support, which characterized Nigerian primary education settings are also significant sources of distress in primary school teachers. In this study, these factors plausibly may explain the high proportion of teachers with psychological distress.
The prevalence of burnout was 15.8% (40/253) for EE, 26.1% (66/253) for DE, and 84.6% (214/253) for diminished PA. Similarly, the prevalence of burnout was higher than the reported prevalence in previous studies . However, the prevalence of EE and DE was similar to a previous study  and lowered compared with another previous study . We assume that scarce teaching and learning resources, poor school climate, excessive workloads, exposure to adverse events (e.g., verbal aggression and bullying), and poor remunerations of Nigerian teachers might be plausible reasons to explain why the teachers essentially experienced both psychological distress and burnout. Reducing teachers’ occupational stress and improving the schools’ working conditions might significantly decrease psychological distress and risk of teachers’ burnout and improve their overall health . Our findings may confirm the underlying assumptions of transactional models of stress (TMS) in that differences in teachers’ attributes within the schools in perceptions of demands of situation and resources of the person’s psychological, biological, or social systems are risk factors for psychological distress and burnout symptoms .
In this study, a substantial majority (76.7%) of teachers adopted dysfunctional strategies. Only 42.3% used problem-focused coping styles. The finding is in line with a prior study . Evidence-based interventions focusing on mental health and problem-focused coping behaviors are needed for Nigerian teachers. Besides, demographic characteristics of age, academic qualification, income, and place of residence were significantly associated with teachers’ use of specific coping strategies, which is consistent with a previous study .
Furthermore, there were statistically significant differences in psychological distress among participants in groups by sex, age, and academic qualification. Female teachers experienced psychological distress more than male teachers, which was consistent with a previous study . Females generally face more pressures than males, and many females experience both work-and family life-related stressors daily . For instance, females perform domestic activities, including childcare and caring for the sick. Thus, the persistent exposure to pressures at home and work triggers work-family life conflicts and may make female teachers more susceptible to psychological distress. The finding is consistent with previous studies [2, 22, 43, 45]. Interventions that promote female teachers’ mental health outcomes are expedient.
Teachers aged between 20 and 29 years old experienced a higher level of psychological distress. Teachers in this age group are mostly inexperienced and struggle to cope with the demands of the teaching profession, such as managing children’s disruptive behaviors or misbehavior, continually adjusting and re-adjusting to new pedagogical approaches, poor school climate, and limited resources [15,16,17,18,19]. Aging may not necessarily provide a buffer for work stressors. However, as workers age, they acquire requisite skills, job-related experiences, and work conditions to improve resilience to stressors. This could explain the lower psychological distress levels observed in older teachers. The finding is consistent with previous studies [2, 22, 45]. Hence, improved in-service training, and better support at the beginning of a working career, and responsive practices may help nurture improved adaptation to the teaching profession.
There were also statistically significant differences in burnout between participants by age, academic qualification, marital status, and monthly income. In our study, older teachers experienced burnout more than younger teachers. The plausible explanation for the finding could be that older teachers feel tired and exhausted by the enormous responsibilities. Additionally, the poor working conditions and meager resources in many Nigerian elementary schools may explain this finding, as proposed by the transactional stress model [25, 35]. Thus, workplace interventions could target social support and better psychosocial work conditions in Nigerian elementary schools, especially older teachers. However, older teachers had a higher level of PA than younger teachers. This probably might be attributed to the perceived sense of fulfillment over many years in the teaching profession. The finding is consistent with a previous study . However, the finding contradicts previous studies [2, 62]. The discrepancies in findings could be due to prevailing working conditions, teachers’ resources, and school climate in China and Canada compared to Nigeria.
Our study further showed that teachers’ burnout symptoms differed significantly by academic qualification. Teachers with a master’s degree had a higher level of burnout than teachers with NCE/OND and B.Sc. degrees. The rational explanation for the outcome could be that teachers with higher educational qualifications were assigned more complex tasks than the less qualified teachers. Also, teachers with lower educational qualifications such as OND/NCE may be ill-prepared to manage the teaching profession’s pressures due to the quality of training and job-related experience acquired. Thus, they may require the professional support of teachers with higher academic qualifications. These situations could make the job of teachers with higher qualifications more demanding. The finding contradicts a previous study . Thus, teachers with higher educational qualifications need more job-related resources to minimize the risk of burnout.
The widowed/separated/divorced teachers experienced higher burnout than married and single teachers, which agreed with previous studies . Literature suggests that married individuals receive social support from their partners, which plays a significant role in coping with job stressors. Hence, married teachers are less vulnerable to physical and psychological strains . Further, this category of teachers experienced high burnout due to the burden associated with widowhood, grief associated with the loss/death of a spouse, or loneliness. The loss of a spouse has been linked to poor mental health outcomes, especially among women. Hence, combined with stressful working conditions, the widowed/separated/divorced teachers’ high burnout levels could be reasonable. Therefore, mental health interventions are needed by this category of teachers to alleviate their burnout experience.
Teachers with higher income levels had a higher burnout experience than teachers with low-income levels. The finding is inconsistent with a previous study . Furthermore, higher-income teachers had more EE than low-income earners. However, high-income earners had higher PA than low-income earners. The finding may suggest that teachers’ income levels may significantly mediate their burnout symptoms. Nevertheless, this claim requires longitudinal studies to ascertain its veracity.
The hierarchical linear regression analysis further showed that age and sex were significantly associated with psychological distress. This supports previous studies’ findings that demographic factors are significant predictors of psychological distress [2, 22, 45]. However, age and sex explained only 14.0% of the variance in PD. Also, the relatively small value of adjusted R2 of age and sex implies that other contributing factors that were not included in the study can explain differences in the teachers’ psychological distress. After adjusting for the demographic variables, age, academic qualification, a high EE level, and perceived decreased personal accomplishment were associated with PD. This supports the findings of previous studies [2, 22, 40, 45]. These variables combined to explain 31.1% of the variance in PD. Besides the demographic variables, a low level of personal accomplishment, adoption of problem-focused strategies, and dysfunctional strategies were significant predictors of PD . These variables altogether explained 51.5% of the total variance in PD. Thus, future studies could explore if the observed relationship is causal via longitudinal studies.
Also, after adjusting for the demographic variables, psychological distress was significantly associated with EE. The finding is consistent with previous studies [2, 21, 41, 45]. However, psychological distress only explained 11.4% of the variance in EE. Similarly, the relatively low value of adjusted R2 of psychological distress suggests that other contributing factors not included in the study can explain differences in the teachers’ burnout. Teachers’ place of residence, psychological distress, and use of dysfunctional strategies positively predicted EE. The finding confirms that psychological distress [2, 45] and dysfunctional or maladaptive strategies of self-blame, venting, denial, substance use, behavioral disengagement, self-distraction, and positive reframing  contribute to EE. The model explained 23.9% of the variance in EE. The finding emphasizes the need to modify contextual factors (school climate and culture) and job-related factors (excessive workloads and a dearth of resources) in Nigerian primary schools. The teachers also need social support from colleagues (i.e., peer support) and leadership support (i.e., headmistresses/headteachers/supervisors).
Age, academic qualification, and marital status were significantly associated with DE. This supports the findings of previous studies [2, 22, 45]. The demographic factors altogether explained 17.9 and 18.8% of the variance in DE in steps 1 and 2, respectively. The EFS and DFS also were significantly associated with DE. This supports the findings of previous studies [2, 22, 45]. The demographic factors combined with EFS and DFS explained 32.7% of the variance in DE. Using large samples further studies could explore the combined effects of several demographic factors on DE.
Additionally, our results showed that sex and marital status were significantly associated with reduced PA and explained 10.2% of the variance in PA. Also, psychological distress was a positive predictor of reduced PA and explained 24.2% of the variance. Also, sex, academic qualification, psychological distress, EFS, and DFS were significantly associated with decreased PA. However, income level, place of residence, and total coping were significantly and inversely related to reduced PA. These explained 46.7% of the variance in PA. Consistent with previous studies [2, 8, 22], females, especially married females, experience work-family life conflicts, leading to job burnout and impeding personal accomplishments in chosen careers. Besides, they also experience domestic violence, workplace sexual harassment, or bullying in Nigeria [63, 64]. These events combined to impact women’s mental health; therefore, personal accomplishments are significantly undermined [63, 64]. Also, psychological distress was a positive predictor of reduced PA and explained 24.2% of the variance in PA. The finding is consistent with previous studies [41, 45].
Academic qualification plays a vital role in teachers’ accomplishments. Also, having higher education levels may potentially facilitate higher PA among teachers. However, low academic qualification could limit teachers’ professional achievements. Therefore, it becomes imperative for the teachers’ training curriculum in Nigeria to integrate content that enhances professional and practical skills, fostering psychosocial competence and professional skills. Previous studies [17, 20, 65] had emphasized the considerable impact of teachers’ interpersonal skills and stress management abilities. Possession of these skills could improve teachers’ PA regardless of academic qualification. The use of emotion-focused strategies (EFS) and dysfunctional strategies (DFS) was significantly associated with decreased PA in our sample. The findings agreed with previous studies [2, 45]. Interventions that promote the adoption of adaptive strategies among teachers are needed.
However, income level, residence, and total coping were significantly and inversely related to reduced PA. These explained 46.7% of the variance in PA. Due to Nigeria’s high poverty level, we assume that teachers with higher income levels may perceive themselves as successful because they can afford more personal or professional development resources. Such factors could improve their professional development and competence. The urban-rural differences could significantly impact teachers’ PA in Nigeria. Teachers in the urban areas have access to infrastructures and opportunities (e.g., universities, colleges of education, job opportunities, etc.) that could enhance PA compared to those in the rural areas. Thus, urban teachers have more capacities and resources to improve their professional achievements than rural teachers. The finding suggests that rural teachers require more professional development opportunities and material resources to promote their PA. Future studies could explore the impacts of residence types on teachers’ accomplishments.
This study has several notable limitations. Due to the cross-sectional study design, the causal relations between psychological distress, burnout, and demographic characteristics could not be examined. Future longitudinal studies are needed to confirm the current findings of the study. Also, biases-response, recall, and selection could be introduced into the study. One of the major limitations of this study is the use of cut-off scores for the dimensions of burnout. According to the MBI authors, this approach does not have diagnostic validity, and its use is discouraged. Future studies should adopt the procedures for data analysis as recommended by the MBI authors. Self-report measures could introduce social desirability and may not adequately represent the teachers’ psychological and burnout symptoms. Future efforts can combine a mixed-method approach to understand the study findings better. Also, all participating teachers were in public primary schools; findings cannot be generalized to secondary and private schools. Therefore, extrapolations must be made with caution. Future studies should use large samples that include private and public schools’ teachers.
Implications for practice
As a result of a high proportion of teachers who reported psychological distress and burnout and their association with dysfunctional coping strategies, implementing multi-components evidence-based mental health interventions would be valuable at the individual and organizational levels to improve teachers’ mental health and support the teachers’ effective performance of duties. Our findings have practical implications for health education, promotion interventions, and occupational health. Moreover, since more teachers employed dysfunctional coping strategies, future interventions to increase teachers’ usage of problem-focused or adaptive coping strategies are needed. Teachers’ training curriculum should also integrate professional competence, development, and resilience to cope effectively with their professional demands.