As the holidays get further behind us and we start implementing our resolutions, it might be a good time to take inventory of our benefits and make sure we are maximizing them. This list contains some tips for how to take advantage of what Carolina has to offer its employees.
1. Take a class for free
Many Carolina staff aren’t aware that we can take up to three 3-credit hour courses for free per year across the UNC system. If you aren’t using the tuition waiver option, you are missing a great opportunity to enhance your experience here. A number of programs on campus are designed for working professionals. The Friday Center for Continuing Education offers two flexible options: Carolina Courses Online and Self-paced Courses. Ever wanted to learn HTML, but didn’t think you had the time or money? The Friday Center offers a self-paced course that allows you to complete the work in your free time. UNC Online also hosts a number of certification and degree programs offered by universities across the system. I’m currently enrolled in the School of Journalism’s Certificate in Technology and Communication program, and I can’t say enough good things about it.
If committing to a new certificate program or semester-long course seems overly ambitious at this point, Training and Talent Development offers a catalog of free professional development courses. Staff and faculty can register for the courses online. The courses range from a few hours to day-long seminars. The department maintains a thorough list of professional development opportunities for staff.
Keep an eye out for other opportunities provided by organizations on campus like Career Services, the Association for Women Faculty and Professionals, University Libraries and the Employee Forum Education and Career Development Committee. Many opportunities are listed on the UNC Event Registration page and the UNC Events Calendar (sort by audience: Faculty and Staff).
2. Get your finances in order
It may not be obvious since the economic recession, but being a state employee has its own set of financial perks. As you set up your annual budget, you can find ways to trim spending through employee discounts.
Discounts include savings on monthly cell phone service, food and dining, and shopping. If you purchase a membership with SEANC, you not only support your state employee colleagues but you can also access discounts from vendors across the state. Depending on how often you use those vendors, the membership may pay for itself.
If you are currently using online banking, I highly recommend Mint for budgeting and tracking expenses. It’s free to set up an account, and you can link your checking, savings, mortgage and credit cards to help visualize your income and expenses, assets, debt, and set a monthly budget. You can also create financial goals and track your progress. There are other sites out there that are similar to Mint, but you should be careful about with whom you share your financial information. I recommend Mint because I’ve used it since 2005 when an accountant friend recommended it to me. I’ve found it to be reliable, reputable and secure.
The North Carolina State Employees’ Credit Union is another excellent resource. NCSECU offers a number of options for interest-bearing checking and savings accounts. In addition, the credit union offers helpful services like tax preparation assistance, used car buying assistance, financial counseling and estate planning. Branches are conveniently located throughout the state.
Perhaps one of the best ways to cut back on monthly expenses is to trim your transportation budget. One of biggest day-to-day challenges of working at Carolina is something we all have to grapple with: parking. One of the best things I ever did for my wallet was to sign up for the Commuter Alternative Program, a program offered through the university that provides savings on alternative modes of transportation. As an added perk, CAP members receive discounts at local businesses. Through CAP, I received a free Triangle Transit bus pass and access to free parking at the Southpoint Mall park and ride lot. I’ve saved money on parking permits, gas, oil changes and maintenance. I also get to feel better about my impact on the environment and not contributing to the rising costs of parking on campus.
If you have budgeted wisely, but still want to reach your financial goals faster, reconsidering your entertainment budget might be a smart move. Often when money is short, people cut out vacation, recreation and entertainment spending, even though we all need time to recharge. Consider eliminating subscriptions to newspapers, magazines and cable, at least temporarily. Instead, access newspapers and magazines online through the University Library, and think about making the switch to a low-cost streaming service like Netflix or Hulu. Even better, check out the Media Resource Center‘s selection of movies and audio books that you can check for free.
3. Take your community service leave
Sadly, most UNC employees do not use their community service leave. CSL provides an opportunity for staff to give back to the community in a number of important ways. It can also help you professionally if you use the leave to develop new skills or make connections with local organizations. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to use all of my service leave. Last week, I used two hours of leave to work in the Carolina Campus Community Garden, a volunteer-run garden on campus that raises produce to benefit the university’s lowest paid workers. During that two hours, I learned how to chop and turn compost, and I met a group of ambitious high school students who were working in the garden as a part of their environmental studies class. It was hard work, but very rewarding!
In the past, I’ve donated my hours to help plan a conference for the UNC Women’s Studies Department and to serve as a judge for the National High School Ethics Bowl, a wonderful program organized through UNC’s Parr Center for Ethics. There are a number of departments on campus that would welcome help with events planning or other projects, and community service leave provides a great opportunity to reach out to other departments across campus, meet new people and do something to serve your colleagues and local community.
4. Exercise more
We all know that we probably don’t get enough exercise, and we should make greater efforts to get to the gym consistently, to lower our stress levels and to eat better. Fortunately, working at Carolina gives us some good options for squeezing exercise into our hectic schedules. For those who enjoy cycling to work, you’ll be happy to know that UNC has earned a Silver designation as Bicycle Friendly University. Since many of us live too far away to cycle or walk to work, or have morning and evening childcare responsibilities, UNC Campus Recreation offers a number of lunchtime fitness classes during the work week. If you are like me and hate to exercise but want to test the waters of gym membership, Campus Rec offers a staff membership with access to equipment and fitness classes for $12.50 per month, or roughly the cost of taking one class at a private gym. Staff can also opt to have their membership fee payroll deducted.
5. Sit less at your desk
Standing desks have become increasingly popular in recent years as the mantra “sitting is the new smoking” has caught on. We’ve heard the list of health problems that sitting can cause from weight gain to taking years off our lives. If you are someone who sits all day at a desk, you might want to consider talking to your supervisor to see if you can get an adjustable-height standing desk installed in your workplace. Given budget constraints, it’s likely that most departments won’t have a lot of money to spend on new desks, so explore the possibility of retrofitting existing furniture. In my case, I used the top from my old desk and put an adjustable-height base underneath to save on the cost of a new desktop. I’ve also seen portable standing desks like this one that provide a portable, cheap alternative.
If a standing desk is out of the question, consider some of the tips provided in the following Lifehacker articles. Our office assistant, Matt Banks, has successfully tried many of these strategies and has reported feeling more relaxed and less achy at work.*
- How Sitting All Day Is Damaging Your Body and How You Can Counteract It
- The Office Worker’s Schedule for Healthy Living Behind a Desk
- Sitting at Work for Hours on End Can Stress You Out
- The ‘Sitting is Killing You’ Infographic Shows Just How Bad Prolonged Sitting Is
*Big thanks to Matt for bringing these articles to my attention.
6. Set a new professional goal
At a recent Employee Forum meeting, Vice Chancellor for Workforce, Equity and Engagement Felicia Washington challenged us delegates to set a new professional goal for the year. I thought this was a good idea because I tend to only think about setting new professional goals around performance review time in the summer. I usually save my New Year’s resolutions for personal goals like running a 5K or eating better. I imagine others do something similar. By January, we’ve probably forgotten what we pledged to do the year before back in May when we filled out our lengthy review forms and work plans. This might be a good time to revisit last year’s review documents. Have you already accomplished what you set out to accomplish? Can you add a new goal? If you haven’t made progress, can you identify obstacles and change your strategy?
Other goals might have to do with obtaining a new skill or refining existing skills. A goal could be as simple as taking the time to read a software help manual to master a particular program. For instance, there are certain things I’m sure that excel could do to make my life easier. This year, I’m going to resolve to take the time to learn more shortcuts that will save me time in the future. My future self will thank me later.
7. Make new (work) friends
Connecting with others and making room for social opportunities can positively impact your daily work experience. Perhaps one of the easiest ways to make new friends at work is to join a professional club or organization because you can form natural bonds with others through topical discussions, work on projects or organizing events. Unlike “networking” events, where extroverts tend to shine, organizations provide a safe place for introverts and newcomers. If you dislike “networking,” organizational work may be a nice and rewarding alternative for meeting people. At Carolina, there are numerous identity-based and professional service organizations, not to mention centers and institutes that provide social spaces on campus.
In early 2014, the Employee Forum delegates wanted to have more opportunities for staff to interact. Tammy Cox, Employee Forum treasurer, suggested that the Forum begin hosting a staff book club. We launched the book club with the support of Bulls Head Books and the chancellor. Shortly thereafter we attracted a dedicated group of readers from across campus who come together monthly. Through book discussions, the members have gotten to know each other and share personal stories inspired by themes in the readings. (See UNC employees build literary connections.) I look forward every month to our one-hour lunch meetings.
Here are some organizations on campus that might be of interest:
- The Employee Forum
- The Association of Women Faculty and Professionals
- The University Managers’ Association
- The Black Faculty/Staff Caucus
- The Latino/a Caucus
8. Plan a vacation
It was hard for me to look at my vacation time accrual this year after coming back to work after the holidays. At the same time, I know I needed that time in December to spend with family and friends and to think about my priorities for this coming year. I also know that I need motivation to do good work, and for me the reward is a nice vacation. Having something to look forward to is an important motivator. If you have a similar need to create a self-imposed rewards structure, take inventory of your vacation time now and begin planning a vacation for later in the year. If you don’t like to travel far, it might be a good time to start researching places in the area where you haven’t been that could make a fun day trip. If that’s overwhelming to think about, just plan to stay home. The point is that vacation time is important for reducing your stress levels and improving your overall health. We should all strive to carve out time to slow down, unplug and unwind.
9. Save time to do more of what you like
Find ways outside of work to save time in order to focus on things that you enjoy doing. We all have developed some handy strategies to maximize our efficiency at work, but what happens when we go home and are faced with cooking, laundry, family care and home maintenance? Sometimes it seems like the work never ends. We skimp on cooking fresh meals and eat out, which contributes to unhealthy habits for our bodies and finances. We spend time trying to save money and fixing things ourselves when it might make sense to hire a professional. There might be instances when spending money on a service that we hate doing ourselves is a wise decision. It depends on our resources and how much we value our “free time.”
One service I started subscribing to recently is called HelloFresh. (There are several other companies out there that offer a similar service, but I can’t speak to them because I haven’t tried them.) HelloFresh is a once-weekly grocery delivery service that provides fresh, organic ready to cook meals. All meals take under 45 minutes to prepare. The service is more expensive than I would like, but the benefits are that I’m less tempted to eat out after work and I get a nutritious, well-portioned health meal. I also don’t waste time menu planning and grocery shopping, which allows me to do other things with my time.
Amazon also has a grocery subscription service for non-perishables called Amazon Prime Pantry. For a low shipping fee with your Amazon Prime membership, you can order your non-perishables online and have them delivered to your home. Harris Teeter is now offering a similar pick-up service called Express Lane. Using your VIC card, you can shop online, apply coupons to your purchases, and schedule a pick up time to get your groceries. There is a small fee to consider for this service, but you save time you would otherwise spend milling around the grocery store, and you can use previous orders to spend up your online ordering process.
Those are all of my tips for 2015. What are your resolutions and tips for the New Year? Feel free to leave them in the comments section.
Public Relations and Communications Chair
Executive Assistant in the Office of Faculty Governance