Health and Wellness

Are the Famous Valley Perks Undermining Employee Health?

Are the Famous Valley Perks Undermining Employee Health?
Image credit: jon.harol | Foap.com

Silicon Valley sets the bar pretty high for innovative corporate cultures by offering numerous employee perks, unique office designs and trendy atmospheres that attract competitive, young and forward-thinking talent. Apple, Google, and Facebook’s impact can be seen in companies around the world on what it takes to attract top talent and keep them happy, energized and excited about coming to work every day. 

The Valley approach has been to offer a lot to everyone and to go above and beyond for employees, always looking for ways to keep improving, to keep offering more. Just about every startup in the valley now offers free gourmet food and snacks, has coffee and juice bars scattered around the office, and provides free dinners for working late nights. Coupled with the free fitness, yoga or mindfulness classes, gyms, organized intramural sports and concierge services, employees have everything they need to survive and feel taken care of. But is it all positive? The 2014 Silicon Valley Index presented by the Silicon Valley Institute for Regional Studies suggests it is not, as 35 percent of the adult population in Silicon Valley is obese and 18.5 percent of Silicon Valley is obese – meaning more than 50 percent of Silicon Valley is overweight or obese.

Related: Are Wellness Programs Right for Your Company?

Sometimes “more” does not mean “better” – it just means more pounds and disease risk. The growing number of health problems, including obesity and chronic disease, seen in companies in the valley suggests a healthy balance has not been struck, and the underlying effect some of these “perks” have on employee health is something to re-think. Thirty seems to be the new 50 in the valley as long work hours, bad eating habits, sleep deprivation, and mega-stress cause weight gain, inactivity, poor posture, that lead to greater risk of chronic disease and speed up the physical aging process.

The annual State of Obesity report done by the Trust for America’s Health draws attention to this. The report notes that Californians’ obesity has grown by 15 percent since 1990, and the amount of obesity-related cancer is projected to more than double in the next 15 years, while heart disease is expected to quadruple.

So which “perks” are really healthy enemies in disguise for certain employees?

  • The unlimited coffee, Red-Bull and sugar-filled drinks offered as a free pick-me-up, instead lead to an increased heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, increased weight and anxiety.
  • Open and extended office hours disrupt employee sleep cycles and create a version of Silicon Valley’s shift work sleep disorder, where restful sleep is hard to find at odd hours.
  • The unlimited snacks undermine wholesome meals because employees choose to piece together a bag of chips, candy bar and an apple and call it “lunch.”
  • Attending the odd yoga or cross-training class may lull employees into thinking they are ‘healthy’ when their big picture lifestyle looks is much less healthy.

Related: Employee Wellness Programs Are Due for an Overhaul

The real underlying health issue with the famous valley perks is the potential for some employees to develop increased risks for obesity, heart disease, diabetes and stroke or metabolic syndrome (MetS).  As an employer, this means two things: most importantly, unhealthy employees that will not be operating at their best, which means the company is not operating at its best, and secondly, increased healthcare costs. An employee with MetS is 60 percent more expensive than an average healthy employee. An employee with MetS is also five times as likely to develop Type 2 Diabetes, three-times as likely to develop heart disease and two times as likely to have a stroke – all with exponentially higher annual healthcare costs and lower productivity.

So what is the solution?

Wellness programs include activities that are designed to help employees (as a whole) eat better, lose weight and improve their overall physical health. Disease prevention programs are designed to help individual employees eat better, lose weight and improve their overall physical health. Personalized disease prevention programs are the solution.  

Related: 5 Ways to Reboot Your Wellness Program

Of course, wholesale elimination of these perks is not the answer, or realistic in today’s hyper-competitive talent market. The next wave of innovative culture and perks in the valley and elsewhere must be a movement toward hyper-personalization. Rather than focusing on the next one-size-fits-all freebie or “perk” for everyone in the office, innovative employers should focus on ways to create a personalized program for each employee’s health, one with bespoke opportunities for everyone, including appropriate disease prevention components that prevent the onset of MetS in the part of workforce that may be a risk. Imagine starting a new job or working at a company that provides you with a completely personalized “perks” and corporate health plan just for ‘you’ that includes (a) lower fat eating recommendations and food, (b) higher intensity activity plan and appropriate devices/classes, and (c) focus on mindfulness and reducing cravings with the right counseling that ‘you’ specifically require to achieve your personal health goals. This move towards hyper-personalization which means eliminating the “one size fits all” approach to employee perks and wellness that offers the same food and 10,000 step challenge for everyone. It’s time to realize that one-size only fits one and that the unlimited quantities of perks, without any differentiation for what each employee needs to be healthy and most productive, are doing more harm than good.