Why banks are offering new work-life benefits

Illustration: Robert Neubecker

Flexible work schedules. Wellness programs. Onsite massages. As the demands of a 21st-century financial institution continue to grow, community banks are reassessing their role in helping their employees find a balance between their work lives and personal lives by providing new kinds of benefits.

By William Atkinson

Recently, about a dozen employees from Tompkins Mahopac Bank of Brewster, N.Y., spent the day painting fences at a nonprofit-owned farm that connects young people with services in natural surroundings.

The work is part of the Tompkins Acorn Alliance, a work-life balance initiative that allows the $1 billion-asset community bank’s employees to spend a paid workday volunteering at an organization of their choice.

“Work-life benefits are becoming much more important these days, especially as more employees want to spend more time with family, become more involved in community organizations and activities, and even do things outside of work that they enjoy,” says Debbie Callaghan, vice president and human resources manager at the bank.

Allowing employees time off work to volunteer for causes that mean something to them is just one of many work-life benefits that more and more community banks are offering to their employees. Other examples include flexible paid time off (a combination of vacation and sick days), flexible working hours, the option of working remotely, paid parental leave and in-house health programs, such as yoga and nutrition counseling.

These days, work-life balance is an employment goal for every worker, particularly for younger employees. Given that many community banks struggle to recruit young people, who may opt for fintechs or a life in the city over a small town, offering a variety of work-life balance options is an increasingly important strategy for community banks.

Stress-reduction strategy

Joe Robinson, a work-life balance and stress management trainer at Optimal Performance Strategies in Santa Monica, Calif., says a lack of work-life balance ultimately leads to stress. “Stress is a function of how much control you feel you have over your demands,” he says. “If you feel overwhelmed by your demands, you will experience stress.”

Stress can be the result of working too many hours or working beyond coping capacity during regular hours. Robinson says burnout, the last stage of chronic stress, is a significant problem these days. “Burnout is a state of total physical, mental and emotional exhaustion,” he explains.

The impact of stress and burnout on employees? According to Robinson, research shows that people who work more than 51 hours a week are prone to increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. Excess stress can lead to excess absenteeism and increased health care costs overall. “In terms of burnout in specific, it is five times more expensive to treat than the average workplace malady,” he says. “This is not only not good for the employees experiencing it, but also not good for the banks themselves, because the employees have no energy to get their work done, and they also tend to experience depersonalization, meaning that they aren’t relating well to clients and customers.”

In fact, numerous studies show that work-life balance improves employee engagement, according to Robinson. “In addition, one research report found that employees who feel they have good work-life balance are 28 percent more productive,” he says. “We are in the ‘knowledge economy’ now, so productivity is really a function of how refreshed and energized employees are.”

The less time employees have to “recharge, reset and reboot” their brains, he adds, the less productive they are going to be. “In sum, after years of studying this, I have come to the conclusion that, if you have life satisfaction, you are probably also going to have job satisfaction,” Robinson says. “The two go hand in hand.”

Robinson believes that the top two work-life benefits that community banks should consider offering are flexible work hours and being able to work remotely when possible. “Most employees love these options,” he says. “Even one day a week of being able to work remotely can make a big difference to employees.”

In addition, community banks should focus on boundaries. With all of the communication technologies in place these days, employees often feel compelled to be “on” all the time. Even when they are not actually physically present in their workplaces, employees may have trouble detaching themselves from work.

“Banks should pay attention to making sure that employees can feel unplugged after they leave work,” Robinson adds.

Building work-life integration

Julie Croak Waddle, assistant vice president and digital marketing manager for $470 million-asset FNB Community Bank of Midwest City, Okla., is very aware of the importance of work-life balance initiatives. “The ability to work from home occasionally is extremely appealing to me, because it allows me to fit work into my schedule,” she says. “Because my job at the bank is mostly done on a computer and is not customer-facing, I am able to partake of this perk more than my peers.”

Waddle adds that working remotely allows her to be less distracted and better able to focus on completing certain projects.

Having flexible time off that rolls over to the next year is also key. “Right now, I am trying to save up my sick days so I can use them after giving birth in a couple of years,” she says.

The latest perk at FNB Community Bank? Onsite massages. “We aren’t sure if this will be a one-time event or reoccurring, but many of my peers and I are excited for our 15-minute massages to come in a couple of weeks,” Waddle says. She believes being able to work in a comfortable environment that offers some amenities is important. “My institution is about to undergo a renovation to our break room and kitchen that I am excited about,” she says. “We plan to offer healthy snacks to employees and give them a place to quickly relax and detach for a moment.”

Many of Waddle’s coworkers take advantage of the fact that they can pick up their children after school and bring them back to the bank for a few hours—there’s a TV in the break room—before heading home for the day. And, in the past, many of her peers donated their extra sick days to a coworker who was in the hospital.

“Getting rid of the idea that work life and home life need to balance each other perfectly allows me to release guilt on both sides of the scale.”
—Julie Croak Waddle, FNB Community Bank

Regardless of how many benefits a community bank offers, Waddle believes it’s important for employees to maintain perspective on the concept of work-life balance. “Anyone striving for 50-50 work-life balance will end up disappointed, because life at work and life at home are not always in perfect harmony,” she says. “Instead, I strive for work-life integration, knowing that some days are more centered around a nine-to-five schedule at the bank, whereas other days involve taking my dogs to the vet and working from home on my laptop. Getting rid of the idea that work life and home life need to balance each other perfectly allows me to release guilt on both sides of the scale.”

‘A really fun place to work’

According to Tim Treml, president and CEO of $350 million-asset Bank of Luxemburg in Luxemburg, Wis., work-life benefits are becoming increasingly important as the workforce transitions from baby boomers to millennials, especially as these younger employees start families. “Our bank’s purpose statement is that we try to have a positive impact on people’s lives, and a work-life balance culture is our way of having a positive impact on our employees’ lives,” Treml says.

“Our bank’s purpose statement is that we try to have a positive impact on people’s lives, and a work-life balance culture is our way of having a positive impact on our employees’ lives.”
—Tim Treml, Bank of Luxemburg

The Bank of Luxemburg offers a variety of work-life balance perks, many of which are focused on reducing the number of hours employees must be at work. One is called “short-shift Friday,” which allows employees to work six hours instead of eight on that day. And, at an annual holiday party, the community bank raffles off five or six extra vacation days for the following year. “We then donate the money to a charitable cause,” Treml says.

The bank discourages overtime work because it doesn’t want employees to experience the stress associated with putting in too many hours. It also offers paid time off to volunteer—16 hours a year for full-time employees and eight hours for part-time employees.

To promote employee health, Bank of Luxemburg offers a popular wellness program that rewards employees for keeping fit and making healthy choices. The community bank hosted a health fair last fall featuring free health screenings, flu shots and speakers on fitness and nutrition.

But the Bank of Luxemburg is not done. This year, the community bank will pay for short-term disability coverage for all employees “to help bridge the gap on sick time,” Treml says. New personal growth programs, such as lunch-and-learn sessions, will focus on balancing work and family life, time management and how to manage change.

Overall, as Treml sees it, if the bank can provide even a five-minute mental health break to employees every couple of hours, one way or another, it will help to build and maintain its work-life balance culture. “Last week, I had an employee come up to me and tell me that this is just a really fun place to work,” he says.

Meeting individual workers’ needs

Other banks have fewer formal initiatives designed for everyone, instead placing more emphasis on accommodating the needs of individual employees.

One of these is $1.2 billion-asset First Citizens Bank of Mason City, Iowa. “To me, work-life benefits, especially flexible work schedules and working remotely, are in the top three benefits in terms of what people want,” says Dan McGuire, chief human resources officer. “Work-life benefits impact all generations.”

The community bank makes accommodations for employees at different stages of life. For example, younger employees who don’t have families yet may look at work-life balance in terms of making time to be involved in their communities. “Some of our other employees have young children,” he says, “and several others are helping take care of their aging parents. For all of these reasons, work-life balance benefits are important for us both in terms of recruitment and retention, especially since unemployment is so low.”

“If your bank puts family first, people begin to recognize that, and it builds loyalty and a deep culture.”
—Dan McGuire, First Citizens Bank

McGuire sees work-life benefits as “culture-defining benefits.” “If your bank puts family first, people begin to recognize that, and it builds loyalty and a deep culture,” he says.

He doesn’t point to a list of benefits that First Citizens Bank identifies as specific work-life benefits. “Rather, the concept of providing flexibility to our employees is really just part of our culture,” he says.

For example, when employees need to stay home with sick children or take their parents to doctor visits, they sit down with their managers to find ways to make things work, so that they are taking care of their families and also making sure that work obligations are covered. “In many cases, to help our employees have the flexibility they need, we look to technology when we can, such as technology that allows some employees to work remotely,” McGuire says.

Tompkins Mahopac Bank also focuses on individual circumstances more than formal programs. It does offer a telecommuting program that allows team members—mainly operations and support employees, rather than retail branch staff—to work remotely if need be, but Callaghan says other initiatives are determined on a case-by-case basis.

“If employees need flexibility of some kind, they can check with human resources or their managers,” she says. “One example might be working remotely from a location other than home.”

Community bankers say perks like these are important to everyone, regardless of their age or personal life. “In terms of generations, it seems to be a mix,” Callaghan says. “Every generation is interested in work-life balance, but for different reasons.”

How does the U.S. stack up?

Many countries offer statutory policies to help workers reach a work–life balance. Here’s a snapshot.

Parental leave: No national policy, but companies with at least 50 employees are entitled to 12 weeks unpaid leave
Sick time: No national policy
Vacation: No minimum paid annual leave

Parental leave: At least 480 total days paid for one or two parents, including 390 days at a set sickness benefit level and another 90 days at a lower rate per day
Sick time: Employers or the government pay the first 14 sick days based on income or a set cap. After that, the government may pay sickness benefit indefinitely if an employee is unable to work.
Vacation: 25 paid days for most workers

Parental leave: 52 weeks for mothers, including 39 weeks on an income-based rate. Parents may opt to share 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay. Mothers must take two weeks of leave following the birth, or four if they work in a factory.
Sick time: 28 weeks, paid by the employer
Vacation: 28 paid days for most workers

Parental leave: 16 paid weeks minimum for maternity leave and 11 paid days for paternity leave
Sick time: Up to six months paid for most workers and additional time paid depending on hours worked
Vacation: Five weeks paid for most workers

Parental leave: 14 weeks unpaid for maternity leave, plus one year of childcare leave for one or two parents, with a government allowance
Sick time: No national policy
Vacation: 10 days paid minimum for most workers

Parental leave: 90 days paid maternity leave and two days paid paternity leave
Sick time: Six months paid for most workers
Vacation: 14–35 days paid depending on length of continuous employment

Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Swedish Social Insurance Agency, U.K. Department of Health and Social Care, Center for European and International Social Security Liaisons, Business Insider Japan

William Atkinson is a writer in Illinois.