Asian American Medical Hazard: Working in Silicon Valley

employeesampleWhile mobile health units are used in impoverished places like the slums of Mumbai to deliver health care to Asians there, they are also used to deliver health care to Asians in not so impoverished places – the companies of Silicon Valley. This article from Fortune points out that working in Silicon Valley can be bad for workers’ health as being poor can be in other places. Author Jeffrey O’Brien also stresses that while the Silicon Valley work lifestyle can be bad for everyone, it seems to be worse for Asian Americans, particularly if those Asian Americans are of South Asian descent. Exaggeration? Not to me, as many of the problems described have affected me as a Silicon Valley worker.

potbellySilicon Valley doctor Ronish Sinha started the Care-A-Van service when he noticed that he had fewer patients than he thought was normal. Of the patients he did see, many were 30 year old engineers with the bodies of 50 year olds – potbellies, curved spines, joints wearing out from repetitive movements. Care-A-Van service doctors note that unlike most mobile medical clients, nearly everyone they see has health insurance.   Yet only 40% of these have taken the time to get a primary care physician.   The doctors see problems like vitamin D deficiencies (from lack of sun exposure in a sunny Mediterranean climate), but mostly problems with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and metabolic syndrome. Metabolic Syndrome puts people at much greater risk for heart disease and diabetes.

You might ask  that if Silicon Valley workers are generally working themselves into an early grave, how could the situation be particularly worse for Asian American workers? Sinha, an Indian American doctor who specializes in Asian American health, says that typical western standards for BMI do not apply well to Asian Americans.   In addition, focusing just on cholesterol levels detected through blood tests can be deceptive. He considers the HDL (good cholesterol) triglyceride ratio as a better indicator of potential heart disease. In a study of 500 employees at an unnamed Silicon Valley company, which he says has demographic representative of Silicon Valley, he found that Asian Americans have much more risks of heart disease and diabetes once these additional factors are taken into consideration.

I have experienced a lot of these problems myself.   My primary care physician pointed out while I wasn’t too bad by Western BMI standards, that by Asian BMI standards, I was very unhealthy. I have had hand and joint problems from long hours of typing in my research and IT jobs. My eating wasn’t clean, I had high blood pressure and I had a one pack stomach. It is easy to work an enormous amount of hours, since work is just a laptop opening away.

What cause of these problems? O’Brien says the long hours and work culture of Silicon Valley is partially to blame. One well-known perks of Silicon Valley, free food and drink, can backfire as much of that free fare is unhealthy. He also points out that many of these employees bring it on themselves (I did).   They know what they sign up for in joining these companies, which is why he found that many of the same companies that are trying to deal with unhealthy employees are some of the ones that have reputations for being great places to work.

The solution to these largely self-inflicted problems is making the choice to live a healthier lifestyle.  I cut back on the amount of hours I worked, and I took advantage of the wellness programs at my company, which included personal training and nutritional consulting.  I installed ergonomic monitoring software on my laptop to make sure I wasn’t damaging myself by not taking enough breaks. From these decisions, I lost weight, lowered my blood pressure, and the pains in my hands and forearms have largely gone away.   Still, I see many people at work not taking advantage of the available services. Most of my co-workers don’t bother using ergonomic software as it would sometimes interrupt them during presentations. I look at from the point of view that these wellness services not only are they a way to live better, but if I didn’t use these services, it would be leaving money on the table. Others don’t look at it that way, which is probably why most wellness programs don’t work.

Sinha works with the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, which has done a lot of work focusing specifically on South Asian health issues. O’Brien’s article has much more detail on these issues, and I encourage people sucked into a negative Silicon Valley work life, regardless of their ethnicity, to read it.

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Author: Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.