How those great Silicon Valley office perks can ruin your health

Silicon Valley is known for offering generous on-site perks to its full-time employees—but according to one Silicon Valley doctor who sees those employees, these perks can come at a cost to one’s health.

Writing for The Agenda, Ronesh Sinha, a physician for Sutter Health’s Palo Alto Medical Foundation, reminded us that medical illnesses like diabetes don’t just come from poor eating choices, but also from our work environments, which can encourage high-calorie food and long periods of sitting without any movement. And in the high-pressure cooker environment of product deadlines and the hunt for the next unicorn idea, stress compounds these symptoms.

“Employers still waver between offering foods that keep employees healthy and foods that keep employees happy,” Sinha wrote. “Unfortunately, the two are not often interchangeable and an employee under high stress will often pass by the salad bar and head straight for high-carb comfort foods and sugary desserts.”

Although the top Silicon Valley companies are known for offering generous health insurance, on-site caterers and fitness facilities, and wellness programs, these benefits won’t matter if employees are too stressed or overworked to take advantage of them.

Sinha started a mobile version of his clinic, Care-A-Van, in 2013 after he noticed that too few Silicon Valley patients were coming to see him and that their poor health didn’t match their youthful ages. Sinha was seeing 25-year-old engineers with 50-year-old bodies carrying preventable diseases.

Although Silicon Valley employees are known for being affluent and educated, not enough of them care of their health. Fortune reported that although almost all of the Care-A-Van patients had health insurance, 40% didn’t have a primary-care physician.

What employers can do

For employees to take care of themselves, Sinha said that employers must create a workplace that encourages healthy behavior.

For Sinha, this can mean grading managers on how well they provide a work-life balance: “What if employee evaluations included the question, ‘Does your manager encourage a balanced lifestyle?'”

It also means, for those managers, encouraging employees to get up and move; take breaks and time off to de-stress; and to celebrate the work of employees who work around health challenges as much as they celebrate healthy employees who go full-bore on every project.

What you can do as an employee

For employees, taking care of your health needs to be seen as more than just a perk, but a lasting lifestyle choice. The marathon overnight coding sessions shouldn’t be glorified. A sedentary life of being chained to your desk has been linked to premature deaths.

Similarly, the unlimited gelato and free soda is increasing your risk of cardiovascular disease — and it’s not giving your body enough nutrients to run on. An unbalanced diet and indoor life can create vitamin deficiencies that make it harder for your digestion to work, your heart to pump, and your energy to stay up.

Becoming mindful of all this means prioritizing your health over your productivity; it can be hard in a world of bottom-lines and results. The alternative is even more frightening: becoming one of Sinha’s patients, unaware that they are highly at risk for a heart attack until it’s almost too late. If your body gives out, you will become less productive anyway, so trading health for productivity is never a good idea.

So what can you do?

First, you need a change in mindset. Your health has to be a priority, with time scheduled for workouts or breaks, stretches, and good food.

The basic plan is easy: getting a FitBit that reminds you to move every once in a while, learning mindfulness techniques to manage your anxiety, and packing your own lunch or snacks like almonds, yogurt and sliced vegetables to avoid the siren’s call of free fried food at work.

But these individual actions are only a stopgap solution. Healthy changes won’t come for everyone until the underlying company values of Silicon Valley change too: that employees’ health is as important as their output.