Police officers, nurses, doctors, nursing aides, and many other professionals stand on the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic. While catching the virus themselves is a huge danger, the second danger is burnout, with the third being secondary trauma.

This article will focus on the danger of burnout and how first responders are at risk of having burnout and secondary trauma.

What is Burnout?

Being a first responder during COVID-19, and indeed, any time during the helping professions often brings people into stressful situations. First responders may witness human suffering, and because they are human, feel powerless to help.

The short answer to the question of burnout is that it is a feeling of desperate exhaustion and being overwhelmed during exposure to distressing situations. The human cost of burnout is horrendous to essential workers makes the virus pale by comparison.

Signs of burnout include:

  • Being easily frustrated
  • Sadness, depression, or apathy
  • Blaming others
  • Irritability
  • Poor hygiene
  • Feeling tired, exhausted, or overwhelmed
  • Lacking feelings, or being indifferent
  • Feeling a failure
  • Feeling there is nothing you can do that will help
  • Feeling a need for alcohol or drugs to cope
  • Feeling the inability to do their job well

The workloads we expect essential workers to handle, coupled with being separated from their families, is a perfect recipe for an emotional disaster.

Methods to Prevent Burnout

First responders and other essential workers face the stress that the rest of us could not tolerate. They come to the rescue when we are in distress and try their best to alleviate pain and help us heal. It is vital that first responders manage the stress and distress they endure every day.

Burnout is a huge problem that might lead to serious mental illness forming in first responders and essential workers, some things can be done. Below is just a partial list of methods to help prevent burnout.

Practice self-monitoring and pacing. Watch for the signs of burnout in yourself and your colleagues. Do not forget to watch for signs of suicidal thinking or ideation in yourself and others. Suicide is a considerable danger for first responders and essential workers, especially after the crisis has ended.

Regularly check-in with your family and friends. Staying connected to family and friends is vital to recognize that the crisis will end, and life will one day return to normal. Remain connected through Skype or another video chatting, and the anxiety of the day will feel less pressing.

Work with partnerships or teams. Try to always work with others to share the burden of stress. Do not bear the responsibility of patients or work on your own. Remember, there are others to share obligations and stress.

Practice relaxation techniques and stress management breaks. There are many different relaxation techniques one can employ when stressed, including deep breathing and meditation. Remember to take regular breaks to ease the tension and lessen the chances of burnout.

Make sure to time-outs for primary bodily care and refreshment. It is common for essential workers, such as nurses and doctors, to ignore their own needs when working in a crisis situation. However, they must take the time to go to the bathroom, catch a nap, and eat.

Do their best to maintain helpful self-talk. Unfortunately, it is common for people battling COVID-19 to experience negative self-talk. They tell themselves they are failures or that they should have done something different when someone gets worse or dies from the virus. First responders and essential workers must practice good self-talk and reassure themselves that they are doing all that is humanly possible to help.

Focusing their efforts on what is within their power. Doctors, nurses, and other people fighting for the lives of people who are experiencing complications due to COVID-19 are doing their very best. They offer their patients the best care at a considerable cost to themselves. However, no one has control over life, death, or the decisions and actions of others. There are just some things that one cannot control. Allowing themselves to remember this fact will help ease the power of burnout.

Accept situations they cannot change. This last method is related to the previous, accept situations that cannot be altered and do not personalize what happens. After all, you are sacrificing your family life and your own mental health, what more can you give? There are just some situations no one can change.

What is Secondary Trauma

Also known as compassion fatigue, secondary trauma is commonly referred to as “the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person” (Figley 1995). There can be no more fitting explanation of what our first responders and essential workers are going through during the COVID-19 crisis.

All professionals who work with others who are traumatized or distressed and their family members are at risk of experiencing secondary trauma.

Secondary trauma is identical to secondary traumatic stress disorder and is equivalent to post-traumatic stress disorder (Figley, 1995) (Simpson & Starkey, 2006). In fact, Dr. Laurie Pearlman described secondary trauma as the “cumulative transformative effect of working with survivors of traumatic life events.”

Common symptoms of secondary trauma may include:

  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Chronic sadness
  • Chronic anger
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Detachment
  • Fearfulness
  • Shame
  • Second-guessing
  • Physical illness
  • Emotional exhaustion

As can be seen, first responders and essential workers gamble with their lives while saving ours.

Mindfulness to Prevent and Heal Secondary Trauma

Treating and healing secondary trauma may seem daunting, but it can be done with some patience and determination. Remember, this is the lives of those who are caring for the sick and dying during the COVID-19 crisis and their families. It is well worth the time it takes to follow the methods outlined below.

If you are feeling anxious, sad, or angry to turn to stinking thinking such as “what is wrong with me?” Mindfulness can ease these thoughts and release energy that has built up because of being present in a traumatic situation.

Mindfulness is the practice of achieving a mental state where one is focused on one’s own awareness on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s own feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.

In practicing mindfulness, one can pull themselves out of the drama and trauma happening around them and bring on a sense of calm. Being present in the moment means not dwelling on the future or the past. By practicing mindfulness and self-compassion, one can recognize their feelings without judging them, offering essential workers the ability to temporarily escape the trauma all around them.

The Stigma of Seeking Help

Seeking help when overwhelmed for a first responder is very difficult because they must overcome the stigma involved in doing so. Such is the fear of being deemed unfit for duty or weak that more than 80% of first responders refuse to reach out for assistance.

Societal expectations and idealizations of first responders and essential workers are high that they can respond and perform well no matter what the event they are facing.

To make matters worse for first responders and essential workers, there are not public safety agencies set up to help them to either avoid or treat for burnout or secondary trauma. This means that a vast majority of first responders who need help dealing with their emotions are left suffering alone and in silence.

It is time that employers respond to the very human emotional needs of their employees and set up services to aid them in handling the horrendous stress they endure.

The Danger Does Not Stop With the End of COVID-19

A core factor for first responders is the fast pace of their work that does not give them time to integrate or process their experiences. In fact, one study showed that 69% of EMS professionals have never had enough time to recover between traumatic events (Bentley et al., 2013).

The lack of time to heal leaves first responders and essential workers open to developing depression, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideation, and other serious mental health complications.

The same can be said for after the crisis has passed. Men and women who have forged their way through the territory of disaster can and will fall victim to mental health disorders if there is no intervention.

As a society, we owe our first responders and essential workers an outstanding debt, and taking care of their needs after COVID-19 passes is an obligation we must meet. After the pandemic has passed, these brave people and their families will need us more than ever to deal with the aftermath and any mental health challenges they may face. Above all else, they need to feel and know that they are not alone.

“If you are ever sad and think that life is hard, remember that you are not alone…” ~ Abbas Kazerooni

“You’ve always had people who care about you. Always. Don’t pretend like you have to go through this alone.” ~ Emory R. Frie

During this challenging time with the COVID-19 crisis, the CPTSD Foundation wants to reach out to you.

If you or a loved one are living in the despair and isolation that comes with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, please, come to us for help. The CPTSD Foundation offers a wide range of services including:

Daily Calls

The Healing Book Club

Mindfulness, Prayer, and Meditation Circle

Support Groups

Our Blog

The Trauma-Informed Newsletter

Daily Encouragement Texts

All our services are reasonably priced, and some are even free. So, to gain more insight into how complex post-traumatic stress disorder is altering your life and how you can overcome it, sign-up, we will be glad to help you.


Bentley, M. A., Crawford, J. M., Wilkins, J. R., Fernandez, A. R., & Studnek, J. R. (2013). An assessment of depression, anxiety, and stress among nationally certified EMS professionals. Prehospital Emergency Care, 17(3), 330-338.

Figley, C.R. (Ed.) (1995). Compassion Fatigue: Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorders from Treating the Traumatized. New York: Brunner/Mazel, p.7.

Figley, C.R. (1995). Compassion fatigue: Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatized. Bristol, PA: Brunner/Mazel.

Saakvitne, K. W., & Pearlman, L. A. (1996). Transforming the pain: A workbook on vicarious traumatization. WW Norton & Co.

Simpson, L. R., & Starkey, D. S. (2006). Secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, and counselor spirituality: Implications for counselors working with trauma. Retrieved March 22, 2007.