University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Are We Closer To Fine?

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that coping with change is now part of our daily life.

Illustration Credit:  LIAM O’DONNELL

Early last March, Michelle Lamere (B.A. ’99, M.P.A. ’11), was busy at her job as assistant director of educational programs at the U of M’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI). Her group provides career support and mentoring to biomedical researchers as they work to bring their discoveries into practice. Lamere, who is also a certified life coach, was busy helping undergraduates learn more about careers in the health sciences. She was also developing and attending training programs and coaching junior faculty on how to identify leadership goals and further develop their careers.

Then, COVID-19 hit Minnesota. On March 25, Governor Tim Walz ordered that any employee who could work from home must do so. U of M classes went online almost overnight, and the overwhelming majority of office-based workers like Lamere went home.

Like many of us who turned our attention to the immediate problems the pandemic’s disruption caused, Lamere organized a spare room in her home in the Minneapolis Seward neighborhood and helped her daughter, Esme, a junior in high school, make the transition to online learning. Lamere and her work team also scrambled to transfer courses and coaching sessions onto the digital meeting space Zoom, contending with technology breakdowns and trying to turn in-person meetings into meaningful online experiences.

If Lamere thought she was getting her footing, that confidence cracked on May 25 when George Floyd was killed by a white police officer near her home. Her neighborhood rang with the sound of gunshots and helicopters. The air smelled of tear gas and smoke. A lifelong activist, Lamere took Esme to a racial justice protest, but left when it became clear it was impossible to maintain social distancing.

A few days after Floyd’s death, Lamere was scheduled to give a morning presentation to CTSI’s senior leadership and partners. When she woke up, the power was out across her neighborhood. She took her temperature and enacted the U of M’s emergency protocols regarding COVID-19 so that she could get into her office. Then she hurried to campus to access the internet. By the time she logged on, she was buckling from the stress.

“I’m not doing so well,” she told Jennifer Cieslak, CTSI’s chief of staff, over Zoom. Cieslak encouraged her to be honest and share that with the group. “They told me that the presentation would be a team lift, that we’d get through it together,” Lamere, says, smiling at the memory. “It was such a feeling of solidarity and an acknowledgment that these are not normal times.”

When Sad Becomes Serious

Crisis services for mental health issues are available 24/7 from the Minnesota Department of Health.

Call **CRISIS (**274747) from a cell phone to talk to a team of professionals who can help. (For land lines, visit and search “mental health resources” for numbers in Minnesota by county.)

Text “MN” to 741741. This offers free help for those who are having a mental health crisis or are contemplating suicide.

Outside Minnesota, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-TALK (8255).

Indeed, these are not normal times. Eight months into the pandemic with no end in sight, 2020 has begun to take a cumulative toll on us. Many remain unemployed or uncertain their jobs will survive the crisis. Others continue to work, albeit from home, sometimes struggling to juggle work with the demands of children who can’t go to daycare or school or college. People now also face a long winter without regular interactions with family or friends, sometimes heightening loneliness that threatens to spill over into despair. Add all this to a bruising political election, and it’s no wonder we feel exhausted.

“We have a society of sprinters who are now being told they have to become marathoners,” says Michael Osterholm (M.S. ’76, M.P.H. ‘78, Ph.D. ‘80), an epidemiologist and U of M Regents Professor whose own life transformed overnight when the pandemic made him a go-to expert for news programs across the world. And with the pandemic, “[We] are marathoners with a rock in our shoe [and] a severe lightning storm going on. I’m in the same boat as everyone else,” he says, admitting he’s still trying to figure out whether it will be safe to see his beloved grandchildren over the holidays. (By mid-October, Osterholm would tell media outlets he now discourages people from traveling to see family during the holidays.)

The changes of 2020 have ushered in a new conversation about the importance of resilience in hard times. Experts say now more than ever, we need to recognize these challenges, and find ways to cope with this new normal.

For people who have managed to hang onto their jobs, the most obvious change—and perhaps the one with the most profound daily implications—has been in the way many of us work. In Minnesota, Governor Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order required all workers, including previously designated critical sector employees, to work from home if at all possible. Under ongoing provisions of the state’s Stay Safe Plan, people who can telework must continue to do so, at least for the immediate future.

According to Pew Research, prior to the pandemic roughly 7 percent of civilian workers, or about 10 million people, had the option to telework. Those were largely highly paid professionals, many of them employed by larger companies. But as the pandemic took hold, enough people switched to working at home at least temporarily that the U.S. Department of Labor was forced to issue new guidance in late August to help employers track hours in this new format.

A paper issued in June 2020 from the private, nonprofit, nonpartisan research group the National Bureau of Economic Research found in two surveys in April and May that of people who were employed prior to COVID-19, roughly half had switched to working at home at least temporarily, including 35.2 percent who were previously commuting. (See “Work From Home Not An Option for Many” below about the unequal effect workfrom-home orders have had on higher- and lower-wage workers.)

As a result, in today’s workforce many employees are trying to adjust to a new template for what their daily lives look like. In addition to the myriad worries people have over the pandemic, politics, and the state of the world, they’re also being asked to invent a new work style while contending with almost unrelenting change. To do that, experts say it’s important to both acknowledge that this is a hard time, and to look for silver linings where we can find them.

For instance, there have been some upsides to this work-from-home model for those who are able to take advantage of it. Many have discovered what they had previously grumbled about is true—that many office meetings could in fact have been handled in an email. And working from home has meant reclaiming hours once lost to commuting (not to mention the positive impact not driving has had on the environment).

Remote work may also offer an opportunity for more employees to shine. While in-person meetings favor extroverts, Elizabeth Campbell, an assistant professor at the Carlson School of Management, says today’s remote work may prove to be an opportunity for introverts. To prove her point, she mentions an online class she is teaching where she asked students to put whatever they wanted to say into the chat function on Zoom. “They all fed the chat and it became like a stream of consciousness,” she says. “Then we talked about what we saw.”

Of course, there are inevitable downsides. “We know that when people work remotely, the richness of communication breaks down,” says Campbell. “It’s not rocket science [to understand] that’s going to create a bunch of different issues, including more interpersonal conflict that happens when you miss the kinds of body language cues you pick up on when you are in the office.”

Campbell says that while working from home is great when you are focused on tasks, it’s less effective when it comes to harnessing pro-social behaviors—helping, offering social support, giving someone a creative idea—that face-to-face interactions foster. Any manager knows the support they give employees extends to issues beyond the workplace. That kind of compassion and empathy is harder to foster online.

It’s also harder to maintain genuine friendships when you aren’t in the same physical space. Erin Lengas Agostinelli (B.A. ‘14), editorial director at Travel + Leisure and Departures magazines, says her team had to leave their Manhattan office last March. Agostinelli says she was initially excited about how much more time her new work-from-home arrangement afforded her. But after a few months, she misses the companionship of her coworkers. This past September, she went to the office for the first time and was heartbroken to see the empty desks. “I love what I do,” she says. “But my favorite part of my job is my co-workers.”

And, while being able to finish a project without getting out of your pajamas has its perks, working from home also makes it more difficult to establish the boundary between the two—especially for women, who research shows are shouldering more of the childcare and chores.

“There isn’t that natural break of ‘I’m leaving work now,’” explains Theresa Glomb of the Carlson School. Glomb researches emotion in workplaces and employee health and wellbeing. “Now there’s no break in between those work periods ... so people are reporting that they’re working longer.”

Neither Campbell nor Glomb can predict what will change in our country’s work culture once the pandemic recedes. But both agree there likely will be a serious reevaluation about how businesses and organizations function. “So much of [work culture] was, ‘This is how we’ve always done it in this organization, or in this industry,’” says Glomb. “And now we can take a really thoughtful view and say, ‘OK, well, what is the work that needs to be done? And who needs to do that work? And where does that person need to be located? And how do they need to liaison with other parts of the organization?’”

While we wait to see what the coming months bring— and hope for a vaccine that will at least start our return to normal life—the best advice for the meantime may be to recognize what an unsettled time this is, and that we’re being asked to adapt on the fly to an event most of us never anticipated. We also need to give ourselves the space and the grace to recognize we’re doing the best we can during a moment of unprecedented change.

Elizabeth Foy Larsen is the senior editor of Minnesota Alumni.

Let’s Admit it: This is All Hard

Illustration Credit:  LIAM O’DONNELL

Being thoughtful about the changes in our life is top of mind for people like Michelle Lamere, of the U of M’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI). On the last day of October, she held a Zoom seminar about resilience and how important it is to be able to rebound from challenges.

In a breakout session, two graduate students who were attending shared that they were struggling with feeling isolated. As researchers, they were used to working on their own, but not being able to socialize with friends or fellow students was taking a toll.

Lamere’s message to them and others was simple: These aren’t normal times, and you can’t expect yourself to perform the same way that you did before the changes of 2020. “We are all suffering and struggling right now,” she says.

But she also encourages people to pay attention to the gifts that this time brings. On the professional side, that may mean gaining clarity on your professional purpose. “All innovations are born out of necessity,” she says. “We will take those insights with us when we return to our new normal. We can carry the things we noticed and appreciated when the world slowed down—whether it was the pleasure of an outdoor happy hour or the satisfaction of baking treats, or just not being overscheduled—with us when the world speeds up again.”

On the personal level, 2020 may also bring strengthened connections to friends, family, colleagues, and even people we didn’t know. “In my neighborhood [after George Floyd’s death], we had to form a watch and go in shifts around the clock since the police informed us white supremacist cells were organizing at our local park and using the Greenway to deploy around south Minneapolis,” Lamere says. “It was terrifying, but standing together and leaning on each other bonded us in a way that hadn’t been there before.”

Recently, Lamere’s team at CTSI decided to establish new work norms as a way to proactively take care of themselves. Together, they agreed to not have any meetings on Fridays as a way to combat Zoom fatigue and to acknowledge each of them needed space to focus and decompress.

“Does this get us a little closer to fine?” Lamere asked her colleagues, referencing the 1989 hit by the singing duo the Indigo Girls. The team agreed it did. To mark the moment, Lamere decided to play the song. And then she did something that is very 2020. She started crying.

“We just have to work on things that get us a little closer to fine,” she says. “You’re doing pretty well if you can do that.”—EFL

Work from Home Not an Option for Many

Illustration Credit:  LIAM O’DONNELL

Part of recognizing how our world has changed in recent months means acknowledging it has not affected all of us equally.

“It’s funny when your kid runs in on your Zoom call, but if you’re working in a restaurant or retail shop, you’re not bringing your kid to work,” says Carlson School of Business Professor Theresa Glomb. As an expert on workplace wellbeing, Glomb says that the pandemic has forced her to reevaluate her own whitecollar bias. “I can’t help you if you lose your job,” she says. “I can’t help you if you’re super scared to go to work because you’re going to get COVID. I can’t help you face this inequity.”

In October, unemployment hovered at 6.9 percent, much better than earlier in the summer, but still high. Job hits have fallen unequally among workers, with many unduly affecting lower-wage earners, people of color, and women. Lower-wage workers or those in service industries have also suffered waves of layoffs or business closures at a higher rate than have those in white-collar jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And many employees still must work in person because of the nature of their jobs, whether that be critical retail efforts in grocery stores, healthcare delivery, personal services such as hair salons, or fields like construction. Employees who can telework are also twice as likely to be white than Black or Hispanic, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a Washington, D.C. think tank.

In these service jobs, new routines of face masks, personal protective equipment, social distancing, and enhanced cleaning have also fundamentally changed workplaces.

And stressors are somewhat different for those who need to work in person. In addition to the risk of getting sick from COVID-19, in-person employees are experiencing a lack of social connection, even though they are technically with other people. “Workers who can’t stay home now have a very different type of social connectivity in their workplace,” says Glomb. “That social connection was very often something that was a core resource they got from their job.”

Tracy Singleton, (B.A., ‘94) who is the founder and owner of the Birchwood Café in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis, knows all about the often overwhelming challenges of this time. “It’s so stressful to navigate the safety of your staff and your people against the viability of a business,” she says. After almost 25 years as a popular neighborhood eatery, Birchwood had its most profitable year in 2019 and was planning a second restaurant, as well as initiatives around equity and diversity. “Now we are desperately trying to think in small chunks of time and just get through the day,” she says. “Winter is coming. Are people going to continue to come out when it’s cold and dark to get food? We don’t know.”

Another group suffering extreme stress during this time is medical personnel and first responders. This social-emotional toll includes anything from depression to compassion fatigue. In response, the College of Education and Human Development developed an app called the First Responder Toolkit, in collaboration with the Minnesota Department of Health, to help first responders manage the physical and emotional exhaustion of their work in this challenging time. It’s now being used by first responders in all 50 states.

Finally, according to CEPR, the stressors experienced by essential workers are also being compounded by childcare concerns. Women, particularly women of color, bear the brunt of this.

Over 70 percent of mothers who work in building cleaning services, for example, are nonwhite. Mothers who work in the trucking, postal service, and warehouse sectors are also disproportionately women of color.—EFL

Feeling the Stress? Try these tips.

Illustration Credit:  LIAM O’DONNELL


Whether it’s yoga, meditation, or simply taking a pause for deep inhalations and exhalations, professionals point to a body of research that demonstrates that simple breathing is an effective way to reduce anxiety and help you relax.

Step Away from the Screen

Zoom fatigue is real. If you are in a meeting where you aren’t talking, give yourself permission from time to time to turn off the video function. As long as you are able to actively listen, it’s okay to multitask—knit, fold laundry, walk on a treadmill. “We are home and aren’t going to prevent work and home from bleeding into each other,” says Michelle Lamere. “So give yourself permission to check in and check out and give yourself breaks.”

Go With the Flow

Lamere suggests visualizing this experience as a tide, with natural ebbs and flows. “I don’t cling to the highs, and don’t get stuck in the lows because the tide will come in, it’ll go out, it’ll come in and go out again,” she says.

Winter is Coming. Here’s One Way to Deal with It.

Illustration Credit:  LIAM O’DONNELL

In Norway, spending time in nature during every season is so ingrained in the national psyche that it has its own name: friluftsliv, or open-air living. Not only is being outside a safer way to spend time with friends and family during a pandemic, but it can boost your emotional well-being. A 2019 study published in the journal Nature determined that spending as little as two hours a week outside can improve a person’s mood.

The concept of friluftsliv was first coined by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen in his poem On the Heights, where the main character chooses a life in nature over the village where he was raised. “In Ibsen’s plays, including Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House, indoor space and architectural structures are metaphors for restrictive social norms,” says Benjamin Bigelow, an assistant professor who teaches courses on Scandinavian literature and culture at the U of M.

Bigelow and his family lived in Norway when he was researching his dissertation and enjoyed the benefits of friluftsliv firsthand, both as a family and when his children spent hours outside each day as part of their preschool and elementary schedules. He says the shift back to a 30-minute American recess was dramatic.

Bigelow cautions that friluftsliv isn’t a concept that can be easily grafted onto an American sensibility. Norway has a more homogenous population and therefore is more likely to embrace shared cultural values, including so-called “right-to-roam” laws that discourage people from treating nature as individual property or enforcing borders. But in a time of extreme stress, it can’t hurt to pad yourself in winter gear and give nature’s healing powers a try.

Being Alone in the Time of COVID

Illustration Credit:  LIAM O’DONNELL

COVID-19 has been especially challenging for retired people, especially those without a partner. Not only are people aged 65 and older at higher risk for developing severe complications or dying from the virus, but they bear the extra burden of having to socially isolate themselves from others at a stage when connections are crucial to quality of life, and after they no longer have day-today work colleagues.

Karin Perry (B.A. ‘60) lives alone, and she’s anxious about winter, a feeling she says is compounded by the country’s political polarization. Before the pandemic, she had an active schedule full of lunches with friends and her grandchildren’s sporting events. Now, she’s facing months alone in her condo. “That’s the thing that gone for people my age—meeting someone and having a point to the day,” she says. She also feels a sense of dread that at any moment, she’ll get a phone call and learn that another friend has died. “It’s inevitable,” she says.

And unlike more healthy seniors, people with memory challenges or those who can’t live independently may fare even worse, having to go without adult day care or other services as government restrictions or a worker shortage affects in-home care.

The situation is particularly dire for people in assisted living facilities and nursing homes, especially residents of color. A survey of 365 nursing home residents in 36 states, which was conducted by the nonprofit research and consulting organization Altarum Institute, shows that COVID-19 restrictions have impacted nearly every part of residents’ lives, especially their mental health.

These challenges are further compounded by the fact that the pandemic has given rise to a new strain of ageism jokes on social media. “There has been a stereotyping that because older people are dying at higher rates, they are replaceable,” says Tetyana Shippee, the associate director of the School of Public Health’s Center on Aging and an associate professor who researches aging equity issues. “The idea is that grandma can die so that younger people can [get their lives back].”

What these jokes miss, according to Shippee, is that our elders possess a lot of built-in resilience, which could ironically benefit younger people, too. Unlike 20- and 30-somethings, who have had to give up going to bars and clubs and gyms, many baby boomers and older Americans have enjoyable solitary hobbies—from knitting to reading to playing online bridge—that were in place long before the pandemic. That self-sufficiency is now helping them to sustain during lockdown and continued social distancing.

And age itself can give perspective. “Many older people are taking the pandemic on as yet another challenge they have to get through,” says Shippee. “Some of these folks have already lived through the Depression. Many report that they are doing OK.”

Even with that resilience, loneliness can be a real issue for anyone, especially isolated seniors. Drawing on her research on quality of life, Shippee recommends that seniors identify activities that give them a sense of meaning and purpose to help them cope during this unsettled time, whether it’s volunteering by reading to children via Zoom, joining a virtual book club, or exercising and getting outside when possible.

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