Addressing burnout, building belonging in the workplace

Expert talks about how to make work better for everyone on the team

By R. Scott Nolen
Published: 25 November 2022


Emotions are signals about what each person needs. Workplaces that understand that will go a long way toward reducing employee burnout and creating a culture of belonging.

That’s the message keynote speaker Liz Fosslien delivered during the second day of the AVMA Veterinary Business and Economic Forum, held virtually Oct. 24-25. Fosslien is head of content and communications at Humu, a human resources company, and co-author and illustrator of the bestselling books “Big Feelings” and “No Hard Feelings.”

Screenshot of Fosslien's forum presentation

Burnout warning signs

Fosslien first sought to clear up some misconceptions about burnout. For instance, we often think of burnout as a moment when you physically can no longer do your job. Not true, Fosslien said: “I spoke to an expert on burnout who told me burnout taps you many, many times on the shoulder with a feather until finally it hits you with a bus.

“Our job is to listen when we feel those feather taps.”

Signs of burnout manifest as feeling overwhelmed by basic activities, seeing vacation as an opportunity to recover, considering everyone and everything to be irritating, thinking that getting slightly ill sounds like a relief, and practicing revenge bedtime procrastination, which is the decision to delay sleep in response to stress or a lack of free time earlier in the day.

“You go to bed, you’re exhausted,” Fosslien explained. “But instead of actually going to sleep and getting the rest that you need, you take out your phone, and you get on social media.”

This self-sabotaging behavior is a sign you need to take more breaks during the day, she added.

Additional myths about burnout: Burnout is obvious, addressing burnout is only urgent if you’re falling apart, and everyone who experiences burnout experiences it the same way.

What causes burnout? Feeling overextended, as though you have too much to do and not enough time to get it done. Feeling disengaged or, rather, feeling disconnected from your team. And finally, feeling ineffective, that despite all your efforts, it feels like you’re not accomplishing anything.

To alleviate burnout, Fosslien advised creating an after-work ritual, which can be anything as long as it helps delineate between work and home life.

She said: “It can be a word or phrase. You can do 10 jumping jacks—anything that’s a signal to your brain, ‘Now I’m not going to think about work. I’m in a different space, and I’m taking time for myself.’”

Fosslien also suggested letting go of one lofty but not vital expectation so as not to add unnecessary pressure on yourself. Take advantage of free time by relaxing instead of creating more work for yourself. And create a “smile file” of happy and meaningful moments to lift your spirits when you’re feeling down.

“What you’re doing is so important, so remind yourself that you need to invest in yourself to continue helping animals and other people,” Fosslien said.

Emotional culture

Addressing burnout is much easier in a work environment where employees see supervisors practice self-care and value employee emotions and opinions, according to Fosslien.

She described the differences between a workplace with a cognitive culture and one with an emotional culture. A cognitive culture is one with shared intellectual values, norms, and assumptions that serve as a guide for how to think and behave. An emotional culture emphasizes shared affective values, norms, and assumptions that govern which emotions people feel they can express.

Employees are more likely to feel a sense of belonging in the latter because people are ultimately driven by emotions rather than logic and reason, Fosslien explained.

Belonging matters, she continued, explaining that employees are more likely to leave a job when co-workers show little compassion and gratitude.

“When we feel supported and motivated by our colleagues, we are happier and more productive,” Fosslien said. “We’re also healthier and better able to cope with job stress.”

Small actions that create a sense of belonging include pronouncing and spelling names correctly, bringing people up to speed when they join a conversation, and asking people to continue sharing their thoughts after they were cut off midsentence.

Fosslien encouraged supervisors to ask check-in questions once a week, such as the following:

  • What one thing can I do to better support you?
  • What kind of flexibility do you need right now?
  • Is anything unclear or blocking your work?
  • What was a win for you over the past week? What was a challenge?

“Diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice, and belonging is having that voice being heard,” she said.


The AVMA provides resources for veterinary team members about work and compassion fatigue, which include a webinar on how to create a culture of well-being and information on stress management for veterinarians.


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