Stearns Bank's message to employees: 'Prioritize yourself'

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Jill Molitor, credit manager and fraud strategy officer at Stearns Bank in St. Cloud, Minn., is up for participating in any kind of race — whether 5ks, 10ks or triathlons.

She used to compete in only one or two a year, because her hobby can get expensive. Entry fees — some races charge as much as $85 — pile up on top of paying for a gym membership and running gear.

But after Stearns started offering an annual $500 "self-improvement allowance" in 2017, Molitor has been able to join more races. Last year she used the allowance to pay for a 10k, a triathlon and a half marathon. This year she expects to get five races in.

"I have never heard of another company that offers this type of benefit," said Molitor, who has worked at Stearns for 19 years. "It really encourages people to do something that they probably wouldn't do otherwise."

The $2.1 billion-asset bank started offering the self-improvement allowance to encourage employees like Molitor to pursue activities that enhance their well-being.

President and Chief Executive Kelly Skalicky says that having fulfilling personal pursuits can boost job performance.

"If you are engaged in life outside of work and passionate about something in your personal life, you will be really engaged at work too," Skalicky said.

This benefit is also a way for Stearns to encourage its 570 employees to prioritize self-care, something that busy adults often overlook.

"As parents and family members, sometimes you put yourself last," Skalicky said. "But we want you to prioritize yourself, take a class, do something that you haven't budgeted for, and we'll give you the allowance to do that."

Last year, about 47% of the bank's employees submitted reimbursements for the self-improvement allowance, slightly lower than the 51% who did so in 2017. The percentage might have dropped because the bank has added many new employees in areas like sales and services and digital banking. The newcomers may not be as familiar with this uncommon benefit and have not had an entire year to take advantage of it, said Rory Bidinger, Stearns' chief marketing officer.

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The goal is 100% participation, Skalicky said. Stearns is sending out reminders in its monthly employee newsletter, and Skalicky is conducting small group meetings with employees to drive engagement.

Employees tend to use the allowance for massages and gym memberships, while more unique uses include voice lessons, language classes and retirement planning.

"We had somebody who wanted to learn a second language," said Sheila Myllykangas, the human resources manager at Stearns. "They're using these dollars to pay for those classes."

Myllykangas said it's exciting to see all the different ideas for ways to spend the money.

Still, the self-improvement allowance is just one way that the bank invests in its employees and attempts to make their personal lives easier.

For instance, employees also can get up to $5,000 per year as reimbursement for expenses related to caring for children or an elderly parent, Myllykangas said. Some use the money to pay for daycare or cover fees for their children's school activities.

Molitor is grateful for how much Stearns values its employees. She said her work involves a lot of sitting and the $500 self-improvement reimbursement helps her compensate by running more.

"It makes you realize that you are important to the bank," she said. "They care about how much you put into your career for them and they are going to give back."

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