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 is a transcript of our recent conversation, edited for clarity:
What does the need for 'work-life-civic balance" mean specifically?
I'm grateful that you want to talk about work-life-civic balance.Having those three things as our goals is just fundamentally important. Not just work-life balance, but work-life-civic balance.
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, the actual end, 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. If you put all those things together and you think that the point of the economy is to support human flourishing, then what the economy has to support is productivity, work—because you've got to have material resources to support things including your own life—and life itself—that broad pursuit of happiness in our private lives—and civic life, that pursuit of shared empowerment. So that's the picture: 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. So it's a little complicated to say exactly how one thinks about all the time elements, but 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 really focus on giving people civic skills that are about bridging difference, forging compromise. Citizens Campaign is really 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.
How do you define 'civic participation'?
That's a great question and it's a really big question. I'm going to give you an answer that is too simplistic, for starters. A healthy democracy really depends on three cornerstones. There's the right to vote, of course, which is fundamental. But the truth is, the right to vote doesn't get us anywhere if we don't have competitive elections. That means there's also got to be a right to run, including for some of those local little teeny offices that we don't think about very often. We should be supporting that and making space for it. Then, of course, it's also the case that even if you have competitive elections in a diverse state of candidates, that doesn't get you anything for a healthy democracy if voters can't see what their elected officials are doing once they're in office. That means there's also got to be a right to see and shape your community in the sense of, is there media? Is there local news? How is campaign finance operating? And things like that.
So in terms of civic participation, there's important roles for all adults in that space of voting, but also in the space of considering running for office. Serve or seek an appointed office. Serve on one of your town or cities' boards or commissions. Then there's that issue of seeing and shaping your community, being able to have access to good clean information and a healthy information ecosystem. We're all struggling to figure out how to rebuild that. It has sort of been wiped out by the transformations of the media ecosystem over the last 20 years. And it's a real drag on the quality of our democracy. So we ought to give some collective thinking to how to reverse course on that.
One way in which people think about workplaces encouraging civic participation is through employer volunteering programs. What you're describing could include them, but actually is different…
Exactly. You have the annual drive for the YMCA or for the Red Cross or things like that. And we're used to employers supporting volunteering and service and charity. What I am adding to that is the idea that we all have a civic duty to participate. That is, again, literally participating in the infrastructure of our government. All of our institutions, every town hall, state house, etc., those are actually collective property. The people own those together. They are a shared asset. They give us the foundation for a stable economy. And any corporation that cares about its own wellbeing should care about the governance foundation for the country and for its health. That governance foundation requires many, many, many adults to be participating at all levels of actually holding roles as office holders in various ways, or attending town meetings or participating in commission hearings and things like that. In addition, that participation is of a much higher quality if people have been equipped with basic civic knowledge, civic skills, and civic dispositions. So there's a real civic education need that's a part of the story that I'm painting as well.
Some employers might be concerned that civic activity is political activity and it's politicized. 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.
I happen to think very well of these three programs. They're working with corporations already because corporations see that need and they do have employees expressing that kind of desire. So that's a sense in which this becomes a benefit that can be offered to employees. It's a part of improving employees' sense of wellbeing. That brings us back to that core original idea of work-life-civic balance. Often we think about benefits right now 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.
There's been academic research showing a spillover effect of how people are treated in the workplace spilling over into how they show up in their families and their communities. Is that part of this?
It is, yes. For example, there are things you can learn to handle disagreement better We're doing a lot of that work in universities as well now. We obviously have a huge problem with viewpoint diversity and challenges around free expression and intellectual vitality in universities. I'm really proud of my ethics center where we've built something called the Intercollegiate Civil Disagreement Partnership, and we give cohorts of students training. They get training in negotiation and mediation and things like that. And in listening, being able to repeat back to others what they've heard from them before they respond to it. Just very basic stuff like that. It's like marriage counseling, almost. And then they become facilitators for moderated discussions around hard conversations. Those skills that they learn in that context are absolutely transferrable to every domain of their lives. The same is true for the workplace programs that I mentioned and would be true for programs that employers ought to develop in this way.
One of the challenges of the last few years, for employers and for employees, has been a resetting of expectations about where societal and government responsibilities extend and where the employer's responsibilities pick up. This most notably comes up around questions of wellness, engagement around societal issues like employers speaking up for reproductive rights or voting rights, where that was handled in a separate political sphere. Another example where supporting caregivers theoretically is a societal project, but in some ways it has become the responsibility of employers to handle, or not. where do you see the line between employers and societal/governmental responsibility for citizens?
The way I would put it is for any big challenge that we have, there's always a question of what's the public sector role, what's the private sector role—but also with private sector splitting between three parts, the for-profit component, the nonprofit component, and then families and individuals. For any given problem, there's a role for all players. The question is to figure out exactly what that role is. With regard to corporations, at the end of the day, a healthy foundation of governance in this country is necessary for a healthy economy. Employers should realize that and pay attention to it. That's slightly different from asking people to weigh in on every political issue that crosses across the radar screen. That's hard. I do think corporations need to parse, which are the questions that are actually fundamental to the stability of governance and which are not.
Those that are fundamental to the stability of governance are reasonable. Not only reasonable, but they honestly ought to be thinking quite seriously about them and figuring out how to protect stable governance for this country. For the others, then they have to make their own independent mission-related decisions about their own customer bases and their constituencies and things like that. Yes, it's hard to navigate, but that's what the big bucks get paid for, solving hard problems. So let's not be afraid. Coming back to the question of capacitating workers themselves to be their own civic actors, not feel that they want to rely on their employers, that can be a helpful thing. For example, here, at Harvard Law School, there's been a lot of success because we have a dean who does not actually make a lot of statements on specific issues that are passing by, but what he does do is ensure that every time there is a big hard issue, there is immediately a forum available for people to engage in facilitated ways that support that positive set of habits around engaging on hard questions.
That's a way of parsing the issue. If you're actually equipping people to participate effectively, both in the local level and then where it makes sense engaging in hard questions, but with the tools of civil disagreement, then you don't necessarily need to take stances all over the place.
That's an interesting model for companies where it's not the reflex to open a forum for people to talk about issues,. What you're suggesting in some ways removes the responsibility on the companies to feel like they have to top- down have a pronouncement on some of these things.
It does matter that they be very well facilitated, that they be coupled with a set of development of practices and habits that are about how you engage productively in hard conversations. It's not just a sort of town hall free-for-all, which is a recipe for disaster.
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