Business

In fast-paced world, Cedar Rapids bank finds time for sabbaticals

It's one of few area employers offering perk to long-term employees

Shelly Strellner, right, poses with friends on Espanola Way, a popular area of Miami Beach, where she went during a four
Shelly Strellner, right, poses with friends on Espanola Way, a popular area of Miami Beach, where she went during a four-week sabbatical from Cedar Rapids Bank & Trust in January. (Contributed by Shelly Strellner)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Imagine a full month of time off from work, free to do whatever you dream — within your budget — without losing your job or missing a paycheck and not returning to a mountain of catch-up work.

This type of extended break might happen after high school or college or need to wait for retirement. But in the thick of a career — aside from parental, bereavement or medical leave — getting away for even a short time can be a struggle.

The philosophy is a little different at Cedar Rapids Bank & Trust. All its employees earn a four-week paid sabbatical upon 10 years of service, then again at 18, 25, 30 and 35 years — on top of their regular time away benefits.

The intent is to disconnect, recharge and come back fresh with ideas and focus. It’s not mandated, but highly encouraged.

“It is such a great benefit,” said Shelly Strellner, senior vice president of private banking who spent nearly all of January in Miami. “It is so refreshing and relaxing.”

Outside of academia and religious institutions, Cedar Rapids Bank & Trust, or CRBT, which has its main offices at 500 First Ave. NE in Cedar Rapids, is one of few Eastern Iowa businesses offering such a perk.

Nationally, only 5 percent of workplaces offer paid sabbaticals and another 12 percent offer unpaid sabbaticals, according to a 2017 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. With low unemployment rates, companies are striving to improve culture, flexibility and productivity to stay competitive in recruiting and retaining talent, yet a 2018 survey by the society found 35 percent of workers don’t plan to use all of their vacation time — with a third citing too much work to do, guilt or discouragement from bosses.

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Mark Hudson, legislative director for the State Council of Iowa SHRM and an employment and labor lawyer at Shuttleworth & Ingersoll Law in Cedar Rapids, said while sabbaticals are more common abroad, only a small number of corporate sabbatical programs exist in Iowa beyond college and university settings.

Unlimited paid time off plans are becoming more prevalent, but sabbatical programs are different in that employees are encouraged to be off, are ensured they have the time to do it and work is covered while they are away, he said.

The deterrent for many employers to establishing a sabbatical program is covering the workload during extended absences of key staff members. But those who find a way to make it work quickly benefit, he said. An unexpected byproduct of sabbaticals is they create a stress test on an organization.

Employers and employees within a company are forced to work together to adapt to absences and cross train. The overall workplace becomes more productive, efficient and prepared, he said.

“I think those who take the challenge see the benefit quickly,” Hudson said. “There’s not really a drawback to a sabbatical program, but you need depth to be able to cover when someone is gone for that long, which can be a challenge of culture and organization.”

Strellner, 57, who has been with CRBT since June 2001, wanted a destination vacation to truly disconnect instead of staying local where she’d run into familiar faces or be tempted to swing by the office.

In Florida, Strellner helped a friend celebrate her birthday, visited Key West, attended a party at the Versace Mansion, listened to Beach Boy Brian Wilson in concert, strolled Lincoln Road on Miami Beach, hopped trolleys and watched set up for Super Bowl LIV.

“That much time gone and unwinding gives you a whole different look at what you do,” she said. “It’s re-energizing.”

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Co-workers have used sabbaticals to tour Europe, embrace their child’s high school graduation month, enroll in classes, take an Alaskan cruise, attend the Olympic Games in London, complete church mission trips and rent a house on an island where friends and family took turns visiting.

Wendy Nielsen, first vice president of marketing, recalled spending a week and half visiting her sister in Washington, D.C. and the rest getting settled into her new home with her husband.

CRBT officials said the sabbatical program, which it has offered since forming in 2001, reinforces its commitment to work-life balance.

“In the fast-paced world we live in today, a lot of people don’t ever get a chance to truly step back and step away and look at their purpose in life and their goals and why they’re doing everything they’re doing,” said James Klein, 46, who has been with CRBT since 2004 and became bank president in 2019. “When you’re off for four weeks, you really have a lot of time to think and evaluate.”

Co-workers rally to help each other knowing their time to be away will come, and putting people in new roles and giving them opportunities to make key decisions has been valuable for staff development, he said. It also helps foster loyalty and a positive workplace culture.

More than one-third or 57 of CRBT’s 161 employees have at least 10 years of experience.

“If a company is going to do this for me, I feel some loyalty to give extra back to them because I feel like they’re really taking care of me as a person,” Klein said.

As CRBT employees approach the tenure milestone, they receive a message alerting them of their eligibility for a four-week sabbatical in one of the next two calendar years.

In the months before the sabbatical, the person leaving and co-workers begin preparing for the departure and the employee begins notifying external clients and contacts to help smooth out the absence.

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Karon Schladetzky, 55, assistant vice president for treasury management, is in her 19th year at CRBT and is eligible for her second sabbatical this year.

She and her husband, who is retired, are renting a beach house on Dauphin Island, Ala., where over three weeks children, grandchildren, other relatives and friends will visit.

They also will take in a few activities, but not too many. The idea is to relax, she said.

To get ready, Schladetzky must ensure procedures are not only up to date but other team members understand and can execute them in her absence. She also will create an away message advising senders whom to direct important information or to connect with when she returns if it can wait.

The goal is to ensure that work gets done while she is gone — and that she doesn’t return to a month’s worth of emails and follow-up.

“It’s exciting and a little daunting,” she said. “As an employee, it is a great benefit. It allows you to go do things you could not otherwise. It’s a chance to unwind, decompress, unplug and relax. That is route I am taking.”

Ben Weber, 34, a vice president of commercial banking who has been with CRBT for 12 years, has until January to take his 10-year sabbatical. While he calls it “an amazing benefit,” he is debating whether to go.

Weber works in sales for new and expanding businesses and fears missing a big opportunity or seeing a lead he’d been cultivating come through while he’s away. It’s hard to figure out the right time, he said.

“To check out for a whole month is scary,” Weber said. “To shut off my email and phone for an extended period of time, that has never happened in the past five years.”

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Still, he has a few ideas. He’d use it around the holidays to spend time with his wife and two young daughters. He’d catch up on projects like building shelves and a wine rack, visit family, take a short getaway and go ice fishing with friends up north.

“I’m someone who’s been going pretty hard for the past five to seven years,” he said. “I probably need it. … My guess is I will figure out a way to use it.”

Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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