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Ways to repair and recharge from the stress of COVID-19

Our first responder community has been faced with huge challenges and COVID-19 has been one of these. To read more about this, please also see our resource ‘Impact of COVID 19 on first responders’.

As with many challenging experiences, we can also experience positive growth or meaning.

This resource provides some useful strategies for repairing first responder wellbeing and social connections, replenishing on-the-job, and finding ways to reconnect to values.

1. Repair social connections

We know that social connection is a protective factor for mental health. So, the more isolated people become, the more vulnerable they are to mental ill-health and other problems. Social connection is one big way to work towards improving wellbeing.

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Social support – research increasingly shows that first responders feel more emotionally supported when they connect to their social network — be this colleagues, family, mates, roommates, local or online communities. A feeling of togetherness can help you know that you are not alone. If you are looking for a place to connect with your inner circle and other first responder families, see Fortem’s wellbeing activities by visiting https://fortemaustralia.org.au/events/


Having fun as a way to re-energise or inject hope. Do new things that are pleasurable and fun; or reconnect with what brings you joy. Having fun with others is proven to build trust, improve communication, and fuel connection and creativity.

Quality over quantity

Quality over quantity – even the smallest amount of time with your people can make a difference. If five minutes is all you have, use that to connect with friends or loved ones. You might:

  • Keep connection simple. Complete chores, gardening, or play games together. Most of us — at any age — just want to connect. Doing small activities with those closest to you can shift attention from work, and help build simple routines and foster connection.
  • Ask each other questions over a shared meal.

2. Replenish on-the-job


Promote team cohesion, and welcome or create opportunity for
positive interactions with colleagues. Some first responders reported
that this helped them cope with challenges at work, providing a sense
of being cared for, and knowing peers had their back.


Drop the stigma, starting with each human showing up in their own brave way. Communication and honesty amongst colleagues are beneficial to breaking patterns of stigma.

  • Talk to colleagues you trust about what you’re going through. This shows bravery through vulnerability, and breaks down barriers that stop us from speaking about our experiences or asking for help.
  • Have team discussions about reactions to stress (anxiety, fatigue, poor sleep, eating too much/little, feeling numb). Validate yours and your colleagues’ experiences about stress and the pandemic.
  • Follow-up with a colleague — a simple check in, phone call, or email. You can say something like “It’s been tough lately. How are you going and how can I help?”
  • Encourage help seeking as a sign of strength — planting seeds for a culture of collective wellbeing.
  • Utilise agency-based wellbeing support services including chaplaincy, Employment Assistance Programs and other staff resources, as well as community wellbeing programs (such as those provided by Fortem).
  • Share resources in the office and online so first responders know where to get help.

Set boundaries, work hard but not harder.

Set boundaries around work expectations and try to stick to these. Prioritise your wellbeing, accept the new pace if this aligns with your values, and be open about the changes you have made (or want to make) so there is transparency for the people around you. This doesn’t mean divulging your entire experience to all your colleagues. It can, however, mean letting people know about changes relevant to them. When on shift work, for example, you might let colleagues know that you’re taking a few minutes to practice breathing techniques, get some fresh air, or head to the gym in your breaks.

3. Reconnect with values

First responders are experienced in prioritising care for others. Focussing on caring for yourself is something that can be put on the backburner. By caring for yourself, you can better care for others. Self-compassion happens over time, with practice. It involves remembering that your experiences are part of being human — and not judging yourself for them.

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Helpful self-compassion strategies

Forgiving yourself if you have experienced betrayal, moral transgression, or moral fatigue. Self forgiveness is not about letting yourself off the hook, nor is it a sign of weakness. It is about accepting what has happened and finding a way to move past it so that it does not affect the rest of your life. A useful approach is to use the four Rs of self-forgiveness:

  1. Responsibility: Accept responsibility for your actions, as well as for showing yourself some compassion (e.g. “That was part of my job. It was my responsibility”).
  2. Remorse: Allow the feeling of guilt without dwelling. Understand that the things which made you feel guilty do not make you a bad person (e.g. “My actions contributed to that outcome, but to dwell only takes me away from the opportunity to recover and contribute fully now”).
  3. Restoration: Repair the damage an restore trust (even if the person you are forgiving is yourself).
  4. Repair: Focus on what you learned, and how you grew as a result.

Self-forgiveness reduces self-condemning thoughts, avoidance behaviours, and feelings of worthlessness; increases ability to trust self and others; increases possibility of experiencing positive emotions; and raises self-esteem. Self-forgiveness also lowers anxiety and depression, and reduces anger and hostility.

Build on your best.

Understand your strengths and use them to find meaning. When you
have unhelpful thoughts, think about what you would say to a friend or someone you care
about. Then try to say and do that for yourself.

Embrace thanks.

First responders often prefer not to be honoured for doing what they signed up to do. But you can also draw strength from gratitude in the small things.

  • Celebrate successes. Count small successes within teams and family units.
  • Say thanks to someone after/during a shift or perform an act of kindness.
  • Contact family virtually — a few minutes can go a long way.
  • Encourage a culture of commending staff and each other.
  • Plan family events to help staff connect with loved ones.
  • Plan rituals for celebrations as well as losses.
  • Find your own way to say ‘thank you’.

Be kind to yourself,

by treating yourself with a sense of care and respect, even (and especially) when you fall short of your own expectations. How? Give yourself permission to acknowledge when things are tough. Understand your challenges. Go easy on yourself for having limitations or making decisions that were uncomfortable.

Build self-awareness.

When you experience a stressful event, it can be useful to try to understand the facts where possible. Find meaning by asking yourself:

You can then build coping strategies based on your responses. Given that COVID-19 elevated rates in anxiety, loneliness, depression, and hopelessness, adding to the toolkit of coping strategies can be protective for first responder mental health.

Reconnect with values.

If your moral compass has been challenged, finding a way to reconnect to this can be helpful. Reconnect to:


Sense of responsibility: Remember your reason for doing what you do. This can be a helpful way to shift your attention when feeling disheartened, emotionally fatigued, or hurt.


Hope: Reconnect to the purpose of the job. Managers or colleagues can encourage each other to reflect on the things that gave them meaning (at handover, after shifts, or when debriefing after events). This can also be done for the smaller things with peers or family.


Support systems: Rebuild relationships with family and friends, or find new/ additional supports through activities and interests – either
within or outside work.


‘Now’ needs: Reconnect in a way that meets your current needs, not your past needs, through realistic goals. It can be challenging to adjust expectations of yourself by thinking about times that you managed ‘better’. Chances are, your circumstances were different in numerous ways, so a direct comparison is not only unhelpful, but inaccurate.

Access help. Some things are harder to process on your own. Seek additional support from a colleague, friend, family member, or professional to help make sense of things or guide better coping mechanisms.

There is professional support through as EAP services, community mental health professionals, and organisations such as Fortem that are here to help. You don’t have to reach severe burnout or moral distress to seek professional support. Therapy can help by offering a place to process what is going on and find helpful ways to move through these experiences.

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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