Work-life balance is something that organizations have focused on in recent years, amid high burnout rates, the caregiving crisis, and some workers’ reassessment of the centrality of jobs in their lives.
‘Work-life-civic balance’ is an even better way to think about it, according to Danielle Allen, a Harvard professor of political philosophy, ethics, and public policy and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. We reached out to Allen, who was formerly a candidate for governor of Massachusetts, to discuss what workplaces can do to support such a three-part balance. Here are excerpts from our recent conversation, edited for length and clarity:
What does the need for ‘work-life-civic balance’ mean specifically?
The first point to make is that the economy isn’t an end in itself. We have a lot of trouble remembering that—but the economy is actually a means to human flourishing. The actual goal is human flourishing or wellbeing. You could use the ancient Roman idea from Cicero: salus populi suprema lex esto (the health and wellbeing of the people are the supreme law.) That got translated into the Declaration of Independence as the safety and happiness of the people. It got translated to the Constitution as the general welfare. The economy is meant to deliver so that we can have that human thriving.
The second really important point is that human thriving depends on freedom and empowerment. Humans do well, we show the best of ourselves, when we have the chance to steer our own lives. That means steering our own lives in our private lives. But it also means being a contributor, a co-creator to our public steering. We all live constrained by rules, norms, and laws. Freedom and empowerment depend on our being able to contribute to shaping the constraints that structure our lives. Human empowerment is a necessary good, and that requires civic participation.
The economy is in service of something, it’s in service of human wellbeing. And human wellbeing is about the ‘life’ part and the ‘civic’ part as well as the ‘work’ part.
What are examples of that balance?
I would point to two things. One is about time, and the other is about opportunities. With regard to time, there are some really straightforward things. It’s giving people a paid day off on election day so that we all see that we have a civic duty to participate and employers should support that civic duty. But the point about time goes a little further than that. There are lots of folks who struggle without control over their schedules, they have lots of last-minute changes. Worker protections around time allocation, around hours, scheduling shifts and the like, is actually a part of achieving civic balance for people. A lot of civic life happens in the evenings and there’s also times people need to take some personal time in the day. Certainly that there needs to be control over scheduling and not the sort of last-minute changes that workers have no control over is an important part of protecting civic life.
With regard to opportunities, there’s an interesting movement starting up where some employers have come to see that helping their employees learn how to participate in civic life is actually a benefit that employees appreciate. It’s a really great opportunity for employees. I want to name three organizations that do this kind of work with companies. There’s an organization based in Boston called GenUnity. They have a great program with Blue Cross Blue Shield. There’s another called The Citizens Campaign that started in New Jersey, and then a third one called The Institute for Citizens & Scholars.
In all of these cases, they offer civic development for people—in the same way that employers often offer various kinds of training or skills development, professional development. Typically what this means is that they help people see how their municipal government works, how they can play a role, how areas that they care about are directly affected by their own role as possible participants.
I will just add to this another piece, which is that we have a governance crisis in the country right now. I’m not talking about the one everybody’s focused on, the federal level. I’m talking about the fact that at the municipal level, it’s just amazing how many boards and commissions and really important roles for keeping a healthy foundation of infrastructure are going unfilled. People don’t even know what civic roles are available to them, let alone how to activate them or access them. It’s truly a benefit that employers can provide. As a part of that, all three of these programs—GenUnity, Citizens Campaign, and Citizens & Scholars—also focus on giving people civic skills that are about bridging difference, forging compromise. Citizens Campaign is famous for talking about ‘no-blame’ problem solving as a core civic virtue. These are all skills and qualities of character and habit that are also beneficial in the workplace.
Some employers might be concerned that civic activity is political activity. That is challenging for different reasons, including not wanting to alienate customers, politicians, or their own workforce by seeming to support specific political issues in a politicized, polarized political context or civic context even. How do you navigate that?
It’s really important to say that so much of the important work of governance is actually local and it is not part of that polarized national frame. All the programs I’ve mentioned have done a really excellent job of figuring out how to enable participation based on good, strong education and training that is not getting pulled into those polarized frames. For example, the Citizens Campaign I mentioned, it teaches people ‘no-blame’ problem solving. The goal is to find a problem in your community that people broadly agree as a problem, regardless of their political positions or backgrounds, to bring a ‘no-blame’ problem-solving approach to addressing that problem. Then learn what parts of your municipal government can help move that forward. The programs are by-and-large structured to actually help people get out of the polarizing frames of our national conversation.
That brings us back to that core original idea of work-life-civic balance. Often we think about benefits in a work-life framework: hybrid schedules, in the office, out of the office, how we support space for parenting, picking up kids, those kinds of things. Actually there’s a craving for some of that support for civic life as well.
Read a full transcript of our conversation, including more on how companies can choose which societal issues to speak out about and equip their employees to engage on others.