The Isolation of Modern Professionals

The Isolation of Modern Professionals

Are modern professionals more alone or does it just feel that way? From remote employees to communication technology, many factors are changing workplace dynamics. Megan Leatherman, career coach and HR consultant, joins us to share her own experiences and how it translates to the experience of professionals today. We’ll cover changing relationships in the workplace, the factors most likely to lead to isolation, and measures you can take to ensure solid connections in the workplace.

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 Run Time: 26:02

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Hey. Brandon here. Welcome back for another episode of The Human Resources for Small Business podcast. If you’re joining us for the first time, thank you for giving us a try. I think you’re really going to love this episode. For those of you who have supported us all throughout this way, I really appreciate you and for those that are reaching out to me on LinkedIn, a lot of connections in the last few weeks. You’ve mentioned why you like the podcast and how you listen. I love hearing that and it just warms my heart to hear that we’re actually helping your development as an HR professional or a small business leader. So I just love it and that’s why we’re going to keep giving you weekly episodes. Keep connecting with me. It’s great. I love it.

In today’s episode, I interview Megan Leatherman. She is a returning guest on this podcast, actually. We last talked about Holacracy, kind of the self-management model that some organizations are implementing, and we also talked about conflict in the workplace, many, many episodes back. But in today’s episode, we talk about the isolation of modern professionals.

Megan wrote something on her website and it just really stuck out to me. So I just had to have her on the podcast to talk about the subject because I just don’t feel like people are talking about it, about how modern professionals, whether it’s through technology or management styles or just whatever it may be, we’re becoming more and more isolated. I think there are things that we can do as individuals and employers to fight that isolation and to become more connected.

Megan and I brainstormed. We not only are vulnerable about either of our situations and just kind of give you our two cents on it, but we also brainstorm some ideas about what we can do, both as individuals and employers, to fight it. So I think you’re really going to love this episode and I’ll get out of the way. Here is the discussion with Megan.

Brandon: Hey Megan. It’s so great to have you back on the podcast. Welcome.

Megan: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Brandon: So I’ve got to admit something to you and to the listeners. So I’ve been taking a little bit of a break from podcasting. I had so much material recorded and to keep up with the weekly schedule, I have just kind of taken a little bit of break until I ran across an article that you wrote. You wrote something called The Isolation of Modern Professionals and I think I found it on LinkedIn. You had it somewhere, and I ran across it. It just spoke to me. I’m a Marketing Director inside a company that does HR services, and I at times feel very isolated. I work with one or two other people on a frequent basis. But a lot of times, in my role, I’m pretty isolated.

I think you had a similar experience, but it was a little bit more personal, and you talk about this in the article, kind of teeing it up. Talk about that experience with us, how you felt during your pregnancy and how you drew kind of a parallel between your own isolation and just the modern professional.

Megan: So right before I gave birth and then during labor, I had this really powerful realization where I realized that no one else was going to be able to give birth to my baby but me. Even though I had a ton of support from my partner and midwives and our network, fundamentally I was totally alone in that process. Even if I had had interventions or medical healthcare, fundamentally it was my body and this baby, which was really, really scary at first.

Pregnant woman sitting in field

But once I sort of got with the reality of it and accepted that that was what was happening, I was much more able to move forward and kind of lean on my support system when I needed it and do only what I could do, which was giving birth.

Reflecting on that afterward, I saw some parallels between that experience and the work that I do with people on their career development. I sort of say the issue is twofold. One, the truth is that no one else can give birth to change in our careers but us, right? That’s just a fact. No one else can actually do it. We have to show up, do the work and ultimately be the ones to make the changes that we want. But second, that fact I think can spiral people into a place of isolation because in our culture, we don’t have many clear ways in which to talk about the loneliness of professional life.

If I had been in labor having that realization that no one else could do this but me, and then I felt pressure not to talk about it or pretended like I was fine or I could figure it out, I would have been unable to connect with my support team and I would have felt really isolated, which would then disempower me from doing what I had to do.

So, professional life, and our development there, is inherently lonely because it’s up to us. But then it becomes isolating when we’re not given the space in which to talk about it and connect with others in a way that resonates with us. Does that make sense?

Brandon: Oh, it totally does. And it’s funny that you say that because we’ve all have these moments as professionals when we’re just in these funks. I’ve been in those funks every once in a while where I’m just like, “Why don’t they just help me develop more?” or “Why can’t my company do this, this and this?” and I’m like, “You know what? The best thing to do is reflect personally about what I can do differently instead of waiting for somebody else to kind of do it.”

I think that’s where we feel isolated the most is when we feel that somebody else should do it for us or owes us something. But that’s not – I don’t think that’s true at all. If we want to grow and develop and get the work done, we really have to kind of look inside ourselves and make that change or just be motivated to do something.

Megan: Yeah, I agree.

Brandon: How does isolation show up for a lot of professionals nowadays? Where are you seeing it?

Megan: Well, I think it shows up for all of us as people in some scary ways. I think there’s a lot of research now on loneliness. So, smoking reduces your life expectancy by like 50 percent, right? Which is a lot. But loneliness actually reduces it by 70 percent, which is crazy.

Brandon: Wow.

Megan: Nowadays, people report feeling much lonelier, much more socially isolated and people now are seeing this play out in the workplace. There was a study in 2011 that found that when employees feel lonely, it led to much poorer task performance, so people are less able to get things done. They were unable to really excel in their team roles. And, not surprisingly, their relational performance really suffered because it becomes hard. It’s sort of like a muscle, right? You have to use it. It becomes harder to connect with people if you’re not feeling nourished regularly.

Isolated person near water at sunset

Brandon: Absolutely.

Megan: So, work loneliness triggers this sort of emotional withdrawal from the organization so people don’t feel emotionally invested. They don’t feel super committed or engaged (which is something that I know you think a lot about). So it shows up as this disengaged core-performance messy sort of thing that people are bringing in with them every day.

Brandon: I think it’s so interesting because in my role specifically, I really do enjoy working alone, but I also love working with my team and being connected with people. But to get my work done, I really like working from home; I like working remotely; I like working at my own pace.

But I often find that when I do that quite a bit, I tend to feel more isolated and disconnected from the wider team or the greater purpose of the organization. It doesn’t feel good. And I think a lot of people who are working – you know, such as yourself, a consultant where you have your own mission and purpose for why you created your organization – you’re working with just your clients and maybe you have some team members, but you often probably feel more isolated than most people do.

I feel that my happiest is when I’m either A, connected to the business purpose and I feel like I am contributing to a greater good or B, when I just connect with people. And in today’s work environment, where people are starting to work more remotely because of technology, where do you see this all going? Because to me, it just feels like as we use technology and work from home more often, we’re going to become more and more disconnected.

Megan: Yeah, I think I have to be really intentional about getting that connection because, like you, I really enjoy working from home and in my own space and alone. But like you said, after two or three days of that, I’m like –

Brandon: Time to connect.

Megan: Right, yeah. I don’t think it’s necessarily about the quantity of connection or just sitting next to a person at a desk, right? There’s a lot of people who work with others every day who feel completely alone. So I think it’s more about the quality of that connection and feeling like you’re able to really be seen and heard by people in the workplace and maybe they’re not the deepest connections you will ever have. But there has to be some level of realness and authenticity where you feel like you don’t have to have that mask on all the time.

I don’t know how that’s going to shift with more and more people working remotely. I think it is possible to build connection virtually. I have people I talk to regularly or on Skype or the phone and I feel seen and heard by them. But I think it’s going to become something people need to think more and more about because it’s sort of this thing we assume is there because we’re on social media or we’re out in the world. But we have to be really intentional about having friends or connections that feel nourishing to us.

Brandon: Yeah. Well, you talked about nourishing relationships. Do you feel like there’s a shallowness to the type of relationships that most people have in the workplace nowadays? Is it any different than maybe in the past?

Megan: I don’t know about the past. But I do think there’s a shallowness now. Not because people aren’t able to connect but I think there are just so many unspoken rules about what’s acceptable and not acceptable to talk about at work. I think this is especially acute for HR professionals because they have to sort of live in this in-between place where they’re representing the organization and advocating for employees. I work with a lot of HR professionals individually and just essentially what I do is, I’m just kind of a safe space for them to vent and talk about things that they can’t talk about in the workplace. And I know this is true for people in other industries as well.

They come in and say, “My boss is really verbally abusive. But I can’t say anything because I’m the face of the company,” or “I’m totally burned out. But we’ve got to start recruiting and I need to kind of put on this positive face,” or “My team needs me.”

I’m happy to be that person for them. But I wish they had more connection and support in their organizations and on their teams, so that they could air that and talk about it in a way that made them feel connected there. So I think it’s – I just think it’s really hard. I think people are expected to sort of pretend a lot at work and push through and tough it out. And I don’t think that leads to improvement in their performance or in the business.

Brandon: I don’t think it’s good for anybody. As an employer, you’re like, wow, they’re just not as productive, they’re not happy and they’re not connected to anything. You don’t want to seem miserable either. To your point about HR professionals – that’s most of our audience for this podcast. Let’s talk about them a little bit because they are in this funky spot where they’re working on behalf of an employer to make sure policies are enforced and philosophies are kind of pushed down and that people get the resources they need. But at the same time, they are supposed to be kind of this middle ground between the employer and employees. So how do they beat this isolation thing? Because I think a lot of people are happy at work because maybe they have one or two friends or really close connections. Well, as an HR professional, could you really have that?

Megan: I know. I guess that it’s good if you have a peer or a team member that you’re close with, who you can talk to about the confidential stuff that comes up. But I mean I didn’t figure out how to do it when I was working internally in HR. I felt completely alone and just like I had to figure it out and I was so awkward with employees because I didn’t know how to connect with them and be a real person, knowing that their team was dissolving in a month, or like all these things that are happening, swirling around in my head. So I think a lot of HR professionals look for that outside of their organization through the local stuff, through associations like PERMA and other events. At this point, I just feel like it’s something you might have to find outside of your organization and just find another colleague or a peer that you really connect with, that you can just be real with. I think that’s the best thing.

Brandon: As we were talking about the isolation of the HR professional – I don’t know if you ever watched the show The Office, but I’ve been re-watching all of them because I just love that show – and Toby, the HR guy inside the office, just gets hammered by management, by the employees and nobody likes him.


Megan: Yeah, which is sad, because you see him trying to connect in an authentic way with these other people in the office, but everyone just despises him. Not that that’s true for HR folks, but it is a really hard job, such a hard place to be in. I mean I just have so much empathy and I think HR professionals are particularly lonely.

Brandon: Yeah. But beyond HR professionals, are you definitely seeing isolation in other professions as well or just the regular employee of today?

Megan: The ones I have talked to about this, it hasn’t been as serious or acute because they have peers who they can just more easily talk to or are generally part of a larger team. But I was speaking with a woman the other day who feels completely alone and cut off from her team because she’s a woman on pretty much an all-male team. Her manager is really, really unsupportive and awful and she doesn’t feel like there’s anyone safe that she can talk to there. So she’s just sort of this lone thing hanging out there in this universe, feeling cut off and like she can’t do her job well, and it’s really unfortunate. So I think it’s something that people from all industries and all sorts of professions face.

Brandon: What do you think some of the effects are going to be of isolation all the time?

Megan: The health effects are pretty amazing. So –

Brandon: Like depression or something like that?

Megan: Yeah, anxiety, depression, your immune system functionality goes down when you’re socially isolated. This is especially true for elderly folks or people who are already lonely in some way. So I think you’re going to face a much more unhealthy workforce, people who just don’t feel like they can get out of bed, or show up to work, or who need more time off for sick time. Creativity suffers, engagement suffers. I think people are trying to fix the employee engagement problem in lots of different ways, which is probably smart. There’s not one fix. But I haven’t seen a lot of articles or publications out there talking about how companies are addressing loneliness.

Brandon: No, I haven’t seen it and this is exactly why I wanted to bring you on the podcast to talk about this, because this is the first time I’ve actually seen any articles. Even at the national level (Inc. Magazine and other big media publications), you see a lot of cool content coming from them. But I just have not seen this topic anywhere and I think it needs to be addressed. It spoke to me. When I read your article, I was like – I feel this. I know other people feel this too at times.

Megan: Yeah, yeah. I think there’s also a stigma around it, right? Because there’s all this pressure to be really well-networked, like who’s in your network and how big is it. It’s embarrassing sometimes to admit that I feel lonely, or isolated, or I don’t feel like I have community around me. I think there’s this idea that this means we’re weak, or awkward, or not socially capable, which I don’t think is the case. There’s not much going for us in this regard. I think it’s hard to foster community these days. So yeah, I think we’re just now learning how this is impacting the workplace and how we can address it.

Brandon: So if we both agree that there’s some sort of issue with isolation and that we need to do something about it, let’s brainstorm a little bit. What could employers do? What can we do as individuals to fight this isolation and do something about it? In your mind, what do we do?

Megan: I think people naturally want to connect, so there’s this natural inclination. And I think leaders in organizations, really all they have to do is sort of get out of the way and let people do that – fostering spaces and atmospheres where people feel like they can connect authentically, encouraging empathy and warm connection at work, whether it’s allowing more space or time to meet, not focusing so much on efficiency and productivity, because those things are going to drop off anyway if people are feeling isolated. So, really just allowing that to happen naturally.

And then I think, as individuals, find peers that you can confide in and really treasure those relationships and focus on the quality of your network and not necessarily the quantity. That’s something that has been really helpful for me, just finding people not necessarily in my line of work but just other professionals that I feel like I can be really be real with. Obviously I think working with a mentor or therapist or coach is helpful just to have a safe place where, you know, for an hour a week, you just feel really seen and validated and heard.

Brandon: Yeah.

Megan: And then something that you’re helping me with is this new column that we’re writing for PERMA that’s about being human in HR. It’s sort of an experiment that I’m trying out where I will be interviewing other HR professionals about issues like this and trying to foster that real authentic connection in writing form. So finding avenues like that which feel helpful and real to people – I think those are the things that come to mind as the most easily accessible.

Brandon: Yeah. To me, it definitely seems like there’s a lot of different channels in which we can connect. But at the root of all this is how do we show empathy for one another and how do we get to know people at a deep level to see that? Like hey, we’re similar. We have the same issues or the same interests or whatever it may be. I think in today’s work environment, we just don’t get a chance to find that stuff out about people.

So we don’t have chances to just hang around the water cooler and talk. If people are out of the office and working remotely, or if they’re in an environment where they’re standing next to a machine, and they can’t move around and they can’t talk to anybody. They’re just sitting there plugging away on something. How do you give people a chance to run into each other and have more of an in-depth conversation than just small talk? Because I think the empathy is everything. I think that’s how people connect.

Megan: I don’t have an easy answer. I think connecting people with mentorship programs, or peer lunches, or giving more space for team development can all be helpful things. I guess the root approach should be these things. I think where it gets tricky is when organizations try to do that with an ulterior motive where they’re just looking for more productivity.

Brandon: Sure, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Megan: And seeing it as sort of a quick fix. You know, if we send them on this team retreat, we’re going to have three times the sale.

Brandon: I think that should always be a by-product, right? It should always be the secondary thing. The primary should be we want these people to connect. So they know that they’re all in this together and they’re going to have each other’s backs. Then the productivity is just a by-product of people really having deep connections.

Megan: Yeah, yeah. It’s not an easy thing. But it is possible. I believe that.

Brandon: Yeah. So I think we’re both saying the same thing. It needs to be intentional if we want people to connect and not feel isolated. So whether it’s an individual saying, “Hey, I need to go get a mentor or I need to be part of this group,” or whatever it may be, there needs to be some work on the individual’s part to become less isolated. But I think there are some things employers can also do to make more chances and opportunities for people to connect.

Megan: Yeah, totally, and I think there’s a difference between just going and physically sitting in a chair where there’s a group, and going and really being open to vulnerability or being really honest and connecting. I think that’s the work that we have to do. It’s not necessarily that we’re never around people that we could connect with. I think the issue is that a lot of us feel like we have to pretend that things are fine, or like we’ve got it all together, or like we feel like we’re competing with our peers. We don’t really want to open up or we might not feel safe to open up with our manager.

So that’s sort of the internal emotional work that I see needing to be done.

Brandon: I agree. For example, when you wrote this post and you started out by telling a personal story about the isolation you felt during your pregnancy, and then how when giving birth it was all on you to make this happen. Even though your partner was very supportive and your doctors were very supportive, it was still you that had to ultimately get this thing done. You opening up about that, I think people need to do that more often because I think you’re more likely to have somebody like me who read that and was like, “Wow, that was powerful. Let’s talk about that and connect.” I think by being vulnerable, it just opens up the doors for other people to connect with you who feel empathy for you.

Megan: Totally. I mean imagine if I had written that article and just had been talking like at length about this theoretical issue of isolation among professionals, it wouldn’t have the same impact. People need to feel like they’re looking at a real human being with real experiences and that sort of draws them in.

So if nothing else, folks listening to this can just do that themselves to give space for other people to do that.

Brandon: Yeah. If anything, like even just writing – even if nobody is reading it – it’s therapeutic in my mind. Even if you’re just writing a journal or something, or doing a video blog, or even just an audio clip, and you don’t publish it anywhere, it feels like you’re connecting with somebody to a certain extent. It has helped me a lot, I know that.

Megan: Yeah.

Brandon: Anything else you want to say on this? It’s a huge topic. I don’t think we’ve heard the end of this. I would encourage people to keep talking about it. But is there anything else you want to say about it?

Megan: I just want to encourage people to really just start trying, I guess. And just start cultivating that empathy in themselves, opening up a little bit more. It’s a practice that we have to get used to, and it feels scary in our workplaces. But if nothing else, we’ve just got to start trying, and I think we will see the impact positively on our own careers and on our organizations as a whole. But I’m so glad we’re at least starting that conversation, or starting to contribute to the conversation, that’s already happening.

Brandon: And I hope we continue that dialogue too.

Megan: Yeah.

Brandon: Well, Megan, thank you for being on the podcast. Do you want to mention your website or what you do, anything like that, so listeners can find out more about what you do?

Megan: Sure. I do career coaching with individuals. Like I said earlier, a lot of my folks are HR professionals because that’s sort of where I’m plugged in and that’s the group that I feel my heart connected to. Folks can find out more about what it would be like to work with me as a coach at my website, which is just I’m also out there thinking and writing about HR-related and workplace-related issues in my blog and on my website as well. I really appreciate you having me on today.

Brandon: Well, of course. Yeah. This is the third time you’ve been on and I hope to have you on as a regular guest because you always have great thoughts. I do encourage people to go subscribe to your blog because you have some really impactful stuff on there. They’re shorter too. They’re not super long or anything. But you always have something really valuable to say. I just really appreciate that because sometimes when people start blogs, they just naturally think oh, I just need to regurgitate. Everything else has already been said out there. They don’t want to say anything that makes them feel vulnerable or just say something that’s different. I really do feel like you put a lot of thought into your content. So I appreciate that.

Megan: Thank you. That’s really kind.

Brandon: Yeah, you’re welcome. All right, Megan. Thanks for being on the podcast.

Megan: Yeah, thank you.

Brandon Laws

As Director of Marketing, Brandon Laws leads all marketing efforts for Xenium, providing oversight on all marketing campaigns, digital marketing strategy, events, sponsorships and public relations. Brandon brings a positive energy to every aspect of his role at Xenium—from internal initiatives around culture and wellness to industry thought leadership through the Xenium podcast and other social efforts. Active within the HR community, he currently volunteers on the board of the Portland Human Resource Management Association as the Director of Marketing & PR.

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