COVID-19 will cause first responders and frontline workers to leave their roles, and we must support them to do so

After two years of pandemic life, we are all feeling weary, but none more so than those on the front line.

Our first responders and frontline workers are under psychological distress.

They are drained of both energy and empathy. They are absolutely exhausted.

Their resilience has been pushed to the brink, with an industry report by Driven showing emergency services and healthcare workers’ resilience levels are much lower than before the pandemic, putting them at risk of mental health conditions.

A Charles Sturt University (CSU) study tells us that the rates of severe depression and anxiety in these workers, part way through the pandemic, was 10 and four times higher (respectively) than the general population.

The study further showed that the pandemic has more than half of first responders and frontline workers experiencing emotional exhaustion and workplace burnout. This is a much higher rate than workers in other occupations, and is led by increased workloads, constant changes, and a lack of support.

This study was conducted prior to the current Omicron surge, which has added incredible pressure, higher expectations and staff shortages to the already heavy load.

The result of all this is that almost half (40 per cent) of the first responders and frontline workers included in CSU’s study say they are considering quitting their current job. Many will soldier on through the pandemic due to the responsibility they feel for their community, however we expect to see a large exodus of first responders and frontline workers at the perceived end of the pandemic.

The workforce implications of the loss of such experienced workers are obvious. The financial implications are enormous, as evidenced by the $381 million annual bill faced by NSW Police for medically discharged members. The mental health impacts will take longer to manifest, and will often occur when the first responder or frontline worker has left service.

The support they receive will be minimal. While we recognise the physical and mental impacts of service on veterans, providing considerable support once they leave service, nothing similar exists for our first responders and frontline workers.

This is not good enough. Particularly as new research out of New Zealand shows that post-traumatic stress symptoms are more common among first responders than military personnel.

Leaving roles like these is a tough decision. First responders often tell us they feel a calling rather than simply doing a job. Redefining who you are is complex, especially for those who thought they’d be in service for their whole working life, yet have to leave due to psychological injury.

We need to address the impact of the pandemic on first responders and frontline workers, however that will not end with the pandemic. We need to think long term: we must support their transition when they decide to leave, and support their mental health once they do leave, for many years afterwards.

They will need the support of a transition program that specialises in helping them identify and achieve new goals, utilise their existing skills, create a meaningful new chapter in both their career (which requires public and private sectors to step up and employ these highly skilled people) and lifestyle, and provide mental health support.

It is also important to recognise that the flow-on effects of this pandemic are felt more broadly in these sectors; the impacts reach beyond the first responder or frontline worker. Families have taken on the impact of these workers’ challenges for their entire career, and especially throughout the pandemic. They are often just as fatigued and mentally impacted, and they take this burden with very limited support. They, too, require support both while their loved ones are in service and out.

Our first responders and frontline workers, and their families, always give an enormous amount to our communities, and they are making additional sacrifices during the COVID-19 pandemic. They need to be supported now and into the future – whether they stay in these roles or not – with targeted assistance.

Our organisation, Fortem Australia, is leaning in as much as we can, but there is so much more to do.

It is in the years following such challenges and traumas that the demons can often bite, when families can fall apart and currently there is no dedicated, specific program of support.

It is not enough to simply recognise the pandemic’s immediate impact on our frontline workers and first responders; we need to ensure we can effectively support them when they decide to leave their organisations. Following this time of immense psychological distress, they will require mental health support many years after they leave service.

John Bale is the Managing Director and Co-Founder of Fortem Australia, and the Co-Founder and former CEO of Soldier On.