by Dr. Hanson Lenyoun and Zachary Kazzaz
For the uninitiated, walking into tech companies’ office spaces can feel like stepping into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Sweets and treats line the walls and stocked beverage fridges greet you at every turn. Employees are never more than a few steps away from a snack–and that’s before the free lunch appears.
These perks seem awesome, but there’s a side that isn’t discussed. While free snacks are meant to increase employee morale, few people acknowledge they may be harming employees’ health, well-being, and productivity, and negatively impacting the companies they work for. It’s time to take a step back and reconsider the costs and benefits of company perks.
From the Freshman 15 to the Tech 20
While set in a new venue with conference bicycles and Lego-filled innovation rooms, it’s important to realize the behaviors being perpetuated in these offices are not novel, and neither are the outcomes. We’ve seen this play out in the form of the “Freshman 15” – the weight gain of first year college students due to convenient access to fat and carbohydrate-rich foods, served buffet style. Now those former students are a bit older, their metabolisms slower, their lives significantly less active, and we’re setting them up for failure, again.
Colleges have realized the problem and are launching programs aimed at helping students build positive health and fitness habits. Yet in tech, we’re still on the wrong side of the curve, creating a hiring market where these Wonkian perks are expected, and we’re surprised when we end up driving young professionals to gain the more nefarious “Tech 20.”
The opportunity cost of free lunch
Providing employees free food is not novel, however Silicon Valley has disrupted apportioned meals and innovated a system of availability that rivals Vegas buffets. The daily cost of tech company meals has been estimated at $20 per person, however, our detailed analysis of employee consumption concludes that at scale (5,000+ employees), employers can now pay as little as $12/day per employee—summing to a per employee annual expense of $3,000, including labor and infrastructure. This represents a 75% cost decrease from the prior system of individual delivered meals. An employer’s calculus follows the net gain in working hours. The assumption being that free lunch replaces workers need to take the hour to travel and purchase food, while free dinner commits workers to an extra two hours in the office. Given a conservative estimate of a $100,000 tech salary, an employer gains $22,500 in time, annually, netting $19,500/year per employee.
However, while employers have saved in per meal expense, they have failed to consider the deleterious effects of overeating caused by providing employees an excessive amount of options rather than individual meals. When food is free and plentiful, people consume more. You grab a cookie at lunch that you would not pay $2 for, but since it’s free, you eat it…every day. Months later, despite the fact that you regularly take kickboxing at the company gym and clamber up the in-office rock-climbing wall during one-on-one meetings, you’ve gained the Tech 20 and can’t understand how.
Even free foods that are “healthy” – like raw nuts, Kind bars, and coconut water – contain unnecessary calories, and throughout the day those calories can add up to an entire additional meal. This over-consumption can result in the exact opposite effect of what employers intended: decreased productivity over the short and long term.
Think back to your last large meal – maybe Thanksgiving – how productive were you afterward? Likely, not very. A few things happen to you physiologically after overeating. First, your parasympathetic nervous systems ramps up digestion, and second, your blood glucose levels spike and then crash. Both of these result in a feeling of sleepiness, as well as decreased attention and productivity. Given the opportunities for overeating in the workplaces of tomorrow and the cycle (see below) this creates, this could cost companies hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In addition to the physiological impairments in productivity, building a snacking culture can have its own negative impact. One study found that, after an interruption, it takes over 23 minutes to get back to the task at hand — leaving your workstation to hit the wasabi peas just 4 times a day can lead to more than an hour and a half of lost attention. There is a cost to your waistline as well. Those wasabi peas weigh in at 120 calories per ounce — those 4 trips add up to an extra, unnecessary meal and set a new normal that easily becomes a habit. This demonstrates how increased caloric intake through snacking can lead to obesity, which results in an an estimated cost of more than $153 billion in annual lost productivity.
Locking down the cookie jar
The solution isn’t for employers to do away with perks altogether; it’s to offer appealing perks in a smarter way, ensuring employees stay healthy and productive. Instead of focusing on items that appeal to our evolutionary urges, the smarter and more sustainable approach is to encourage benefits that actually improve the health, wellbeing, and productivity of the workforce.
For food, that means using what we know about consumption to design an environment that keeps employees nourished and healthy. Considerations around portion control, visibility, proximity, and caloric density must take priority over considerations of sweet vs. salty, and employers need to realize that free isn’t always better.
Research has shown that moving from free to not free drastically changes usage or consumption behavior. The prime example is American health care, where insurance companies have built their product offerings on the premise. Free access results in higher spending while adoption of nominal cost sharing (via copay, deductible, or coinsurance) decreases spending. How does this apply to food? If companies offered highly subsidized food rather than giving it away, we expect to see similar declines in consumption. If that cookie was just $0.25 rather than free, you might think twice before you eat it.
A workforce made up of healthier employees will reap dividends in the short- and the long-term. The era of lifetime tenures and pensions is mostly over, but that does not give companies an excuse to only consider the short-term impact of the benefits they offer. The slender, nimble millennials of today will soon represent over half of the workforce, and thanks to the abundance of “employee perks”, they could soon be overweight, unproductive, and plagued by preventable illness. Thankfully, as the war on the Freshman 15 demonstrates, these are not insurmountable challenges. We have the opportunity to change the conversation, eliminate the Tech 20, and make employee well-being the greatest perk there is to offer.
About Dr. Hanson Lenyoun
Dr. Hanson Lenyoun, a former surgeon and alum of Harvard and Columbia Universities, has made it his mission to spread the word on how to get–and stay–hydrated. As Head of Health at consumer health startup Mark One, Dr. Hanson has spent the last year perfecting Pryme Vessyl, an intelligent cup that automatically tracks and displays your personal hydration needs. Using a proprietary hydration algorithm developed from years of scientific data, Pryme determines how much you should drink at each moment to stay mentally sharp and physically strong.
You can reach Dr. Hanson Lenyoun at firstname.lastname@example.org.