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Impact of COVID-19 on first responders

It’s no revelation that COVID-19 has been a lingering theme for many first responders. For some, the roller coaster has been very overwhelming, devastating, and unlike any other disaster — infiltrating lives in both subtle and obvious ways.

COVID-19 has demanded adjustment, and caused loss and stress. It has also been a relief for some — time to take stock, evaluate what wasn’t working with ‘old’ routines, and embrace those ‘aha’ moments about unexpected positive changes.

This resource is a guide for first responder communities to both acknowledge the stresses of the pandemic on mental health and wellbeing, with links to resources to repair and replenish.

Stresses of COVID-19
on first responders

Our first responder community has been faced with huge challenges in a time of exceptional circumstances. To understand the potential for long-term harm caused by COVID-19, we must keep in mind that each person experiences events differently. As a result of the pandemic, first responders have experienced feeling stretched; exhausted, with impacts to their social resources and connections and values.

1. Feeling stretched

  • Additional work pressures with no support (e.g. routine COVID testing, wearing masks, shortages of PPE, balancing self-preservation with caring for others).
  • Forced annual leave with limited options for sufficient rest or recovery.
  • Covering colleagues’ shifts, being short-staffed, cumulative stress.
  • Being overworked and overwhelmed.
  • Less time with family and space for own wellbeing, a sense of hopelessness about whether things will improve.
  • Feeling disempowered to motivate the organisation to make helpful changes.
  • Not feeling safe to ask for help, neglecting warning signs of not coping, and dealing with assumptions from authority that staff are ok.

2. Impact on social resources and connections

  • Feeling isolated with a lack of support and understanding from family and friends.
  • Having less interest in social interactions.
  • Difficulty connecting with loved ones, or not having enough time with them.
  • Family members feeling in competition with the regular requirements of the job, with further adjustments to life, work, and caretaking responsibilities.
  • Difficulty engaging through virtual methods —particularly for kids.
  • Increased exposure to COVID-19 and worrying about bringing it home to loved ones.
ImpactOfCOVID19 1

3. Exhaustion/burnout

  • Feeling like there is no relief from stress.
  • Not being able to ‘catch a breath’.
  • Feeling emotional exhaustion due to the cumulative stress (not a lack of resilience), moral dilemmas, and constraints outside of own control.
  • Feeling there is no time to prioritise self-care.
  • Suffering in silence, feeling isolated in the struggle when others are also likely to be struggling.
  • Worrying about job loss, reluctant to seek help or get treatment.
  • Using drugs, alcohol, or engaging in other potentially harmful behaviours to self-soothe or cope with stress.

4. Moral distress and morally challenging situations

For first responders, COVID-19 has played on moral emotions – the emotions that make us care about morality (e.g. empathy for others). A helpful way to understand this is to consider that when we do something wrong, we often feel guilty, ashamed, or uncomfortable. When we feel that others have done something wrong, it can trigger feelings of anger, rage, disgust, or resentment. In the context of COVID-19, it has not necessarily been one incident, but the gradual and more subtle impact on moral experiences over time.

ImpactOfCOVID19 2

When situations come up that do not allow first responders to deliver care and safety in the way they have been trained, it can cause moral and ethical conflicts.

Some of the ways you may experience moral distress

question mark

Feeling uncertain and questioning or fearing for safety of self and others.


Not having enough information to make sound judgements and having to act with continually changing directives, policies, and advice.


Feeling a sense of  or obligation to say yes — the job feeling burdensome with a shift from a typical level of care to a sense of obligation.


Being scrutinised due to exposure to COVID-19 — contributing to stress,
anxiety, depression, rejection, health problems, social withdrawal and
impacts on self-worth.


Questioning values and doubting own beliefs and reason for joining
to begin with (“What am I doing this for? Am I really making a difference?”)

self image

Impact on self-image with perceptions and feelings about self, which can
deteriorate with the moral stress of COVID-19. Thoughts like: “Things don’t
seem like they’re going to change”, “I can’t stand what this is doing to me”,
or “This isn’t what I signed up for” can chip away at self-esteem, motivation,
and trust in others and the world.

moral injury

Moral injury and having core values challenged, questioning perception
of self or others. A severe example could involve being unable to quickly
attend a scene where someone dies — triggering reactions such as guilt,
frustration, and anger. For some, this can become ‘unfinished business’
that haunts them long after the event.


Doing things that go against personal instincts such as missing events
or not seeing people, ignoring cries for help due to feeling depleted,
or having to deny people care due to lack of resources.

Self assessment

Below are some common signs of burnout in the workplace:

ImpactOfCOVID19 3

If any of the above resonate with you and have impacted your wellbeing or job satisfaction, it may be a sign to seek extra support.

For useful strategies and information on where to find support, visit our Wellbeing Resources page and see the free resource ‘Ways to repair and recharge from the stress of COVID-19’.

You can also browse all of our free, downloadable resource guides in the same place.

For more information on who can access our services, visit the Who we serve page on our website.

To speak with a professional at Fortem Australia, please contact us by email or phone.


1300 33 95 94

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