Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Silicon Valley Syndrome

In conversation with a coworker earlier today, he revealed to me that he had been experiencing pounding headaches and dizziness over the last few weeks. His doctor, concerned about a possible anyeurism, sent him to the hospital for a CAT scan. The scan showed nothing out of the ordinary, and he was referred to a neurologist.

At the neurologist's office, he listed off his symptoms, and mentioned that he worked at a Silicon Valley technology company. The neurologist's eyes lit up, and he said, "Ahh yes ! The 'Silicon Valley Syndrome' ! I have had at least 8 people in my office over the last few months, many of them in their mid-20s, with symptoms similar to yours. In every case, and in yours, the answer is the same -- get some rest. It sounds simplistic, but their and your symptoms are all those of burnout and lack of adequate rest."

In my role as a volunteer Emergency Response Team member at my company, I estimate that at least 30% of the calls we run on are people who don't take care of themselves; they don't exercise, don't eat well, don't get enough sleep... and end up experiencing chest pains, difficulty breathing, anxiety attacks, fainting and so on. It's a disturbingly common theme.

There have been several times in the past where I have had to give the work-life balance lecture to a patient. A perfect example of this was a middle-aged man experiencing chest pains. This is how the conversation went.

"Do you have any medical history I need to know about ?"


"Diabetes, stroke, asthma, heart attacks ?"

"Oh yeah. I have diabetes."

"Do you take medication ?"


"When was the last time you took your medication ?"

"Last Friday."
(It was Tuesday).

"Why haven't you taken your medication ?"

"I haven't had time."

He had a blood sugar level of 299 (way too high), a demanding job, a wife and kids, a sick mother-in-law he was caring for, and was running ragged. I sat him down and explained to him that if he were to burn out, he'd be no good to anyone. "You have to take care of yourself," I explained, "Especially your health. Make yourself a priority, by taking at least an hour a night for family time, to rest and recharge. And be sure to get enough sleep at night and take your medication. You need to do this if you want to stay healthy." He promised he would.

Over and over again, we have run on people with varying stress/anxiety related issues, and the common theme is that they truly believe that they have no choice but to work 16 hours a day and put every facet of their lives on the back-burner for their jobs. This industry is hard-driving and cut-throat. Our company will not give us the work-life balance. We have to take it ourselves, by setting healthy boundaries and by prioritizing. Sadly, many of us do not know how to do this.

My coworker above confided in me that his wife has been extremely unhappy lately, as he is always awake past 12:30am on business calls with India and the UK, and then sleeps in another room so he doesn't disturb her. They only sleep in the same bed on weekends. She told him that she has lost her husband.

I suggested that he set aside two nights a week, where he has no meetings, and where he can spend time with his wife and go to bed together. His eyes lit up, and he thanked me for the suggestion. He'd never even thought of that solution.

He asked me, "How does the President find time to go running ?"

I replied, "He makes time. It's all about priorities."

We all have choices. We can choose to prioritize, and we can choose to set aside time for our families and our health. All too often, we do not do this, and we fall victim to the Silicon Valley Syndrome.

It's an epidemic. And in the current economic climate, and the push to do more with fewer resources, it may only get worse.
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