How Massage Therapists Can Reduce Burnout
Robert Sachs, Co-Director, Diamond Way Ayurveda
A few months ago, my wife Melanie and I ran a training that several therapists from a well-known spa attended. During a self-care session, they commented to us that six of the spa’s therapists were injured and receiving disability. Although this seemed excessive for one spa, it didn’t surprise us. As a bodywork trainer for many years, I’ve encountered countless massage therapists with repetitive motion injuries, bad backs, blown knees, or general fatigue. Yet, despite the wear and tear, very few of them have ever said that they wanted to quit. Such is the commitment of these kind, caring people who seem so focused on relieving stress and discomfort in others.
Causes of Burnout
Massage therapists burn out for all sorts of reasons, but these are the top four that I’ve observed:
1. Unsupportive Lifestyle
Mainly, this includes improper diet, insufficient personal exercise, inadequate relaxation, and irregular or insufficient sleep.
2. Poor Environment & Ergonomics
This occurs in the treatment room. Sometimes table heights aren’t set properly, or the therapist may use stress-creating stances and body posturing during treatments.
3. Stressful Homelife
Childcare issues, spouse or partner problems, or financial woes can contribute to anxiety.
4. Inexperienced Spa Managerial Staff
With little therapy experience, spa managers can create over-demanding schedules.
Of these issues, we won’t spend time on the third cause other than to say that if matters are resolved or being addressed in all other categories, a stressful home life can be easier to manage. Of course, there are changes in family situations that demand considerable emotional energy, such as illness, death, or divorce. Such circumstances can make working on the other concerns seem unimportant.
I mention this as the first issue because it’s the one you have the most control over. It’s all about how you can nurture your body.
We’ll begin with what Ayurveda considers the most important aspect of your lifestyle–diet. You can’t offer a full day of body therapies on coffee, soft drinks, candy, or power bars, and then finish the day with a large evening meal while you’re exhausted and expect to be in great shape for tomorrow’s clients. If you’re young and fit, you can get away with this only for a limited time. Eventually, the signs and symptoms of malnourishment will occur in the form of adrenal exhaustion with accompanying fatigue, back strain, and connective tissue problems.
To start with, eat a decent breakfast, one that has some lasting nutritional value. I recommend getting up a bit earlier to do some exercise to stimulate the desire to eat. If you’re waking up tired after 6 to 8 hours of sleep anyway, you won’t miss the extra half hour of sleep as your rest hasn’t been helping anyway. Avoid trying to jump-start your body with quantities of caffeine and sugar. This initiates a pancreatic crisis that will start you on an energy roller coaster that’s hard to get off.
If time permits during your day, eat a light but strengthening meal. Offering body therapies is hard work! Try to take a reasonable break in your day to replenish your system. Perhaps your spa can make a large pot of soup that therapists can partake in during breaks. Whatever you do, avoid the idea of just grabbing fast, empty foods and drinks to stave off hunger. Drink quality spring water and beverages that replace electrolytes. If you do only have time for a bar of something, then a protein power bar may have to do. But remember: This is only a stopgap solution. Try to work in a proper time to sit, breathe, and eat.
In the evening, avoid eating when exhausted. Do some stretching, yoga, or take a shower to shake off the day and ease your body out of tiredness that can make your meal indigestible. Also, give yourself a few hours between your meal and bedtime. If this isn’t possible and you find that you need to sleep, try to eat lighter proteins and cooked vegetables.
Exercise & Relaxation
Not everyone was born to jog or do aerobics. Ayurveda suggests that knowing your body type will allow you to select a type of exercise that’s most beneficial for you. Swimming, jogging, biking, . . .each has its merits and benefits, some more than others.
Regarding relaxation, this doesn’t mean settling back for a beer, watching TV, or reading a book. We’re speaking of structured relaxation, such as autogenic training, progressive relaxation, and other methods that similarly use guided breathing, body awareness, and imagery. Doing some stretching and relaxation exercises at the end of the day is a great way to shake off the weariness of work. Interestingly enough, Eastern practices such as yoga, tai chi, and qi quong are designed to work with each body type and include rest and relaxation as part of their regimen.
During your workday, taking 5 minutes to breathe or stretch when there is a gap in your schedule can be so much more beneficial than going for a cup of coffee or stepping outside for a cigarette break.
Hygiene is important for bodyworkers because after one has worked on detoxifying others, your clothes and skin have been in contact with people’s body fluids, not to mention your own perspiration. At work, between clients, rinse your hands with cold water and periodically rinse your face. When you get home from the spa, take all your work clothes off, shower, and get into fresh clothes.
Finally, sleep. Ayurveda teaches that "Sleep is the nursemaid to the world.” Sleep is restorative. Organize your life to ensure that you get whatever amount seems to best benefit your body and mind. On average, eight hours is recommended. Some can go with less and others may need more. The point, however, is that if you don’t get enough sleep, eventually the subtle energy in your body known as vata will become disturbed, which will encourage more erratic patterns in other aspects of your lifestyle. There are many factors that one can consider when considering how to get a good night’s rest. Two of the most important are as follows: don’t go to bed full and don’t go to bed angry.
Environment & Ergonomics
In the spa, the three most potentially challenging environmental factors that can impact your daily well-being are smells, product contact, and lighting.
You encounter a wide array of products, smelling them and absorbing them through your skin. Regardless of whether the products are natural, organic, or loaded with petrochemicals, your body and emotions can react to them.
As contact with products cannot be avoided in general, always rinse off residues as best you can between clients. You may note that because of your Ayurvedic body-mind type, you react to some products more than others. In that case, minimize your contact with these products. If you cannot change the product, one recommendation is to rinse your hands with a bit of white vinegar to re-establish the pH of your skin.
Along with the smell of various products, you’re spending a great deal of your day indoors, breathing stale air that’s also laden with the germs and bacteria of fellow workers and clients who are discharging toxins from their systems.
Fresh air contains prana or life force. Ventilation always increases this life force. Because of these considerations, it’s always advisable that spas have quality air filtration systems as well as air purifiers in each treatment room. Some spa rooms may not have windows, or you might not be able to open them while you’re working, for weather and client comfort reasons. Between clients, air the room and yourself. If there are no windows, leave your door slightly ajar between clients and get out into the fresh air if you can.
Finally, there’s the matter of lighting. If you work in a brightly lit area, encourage your spa to invest in full spectrum lighting. Standard fluorescent lighting can cause fatigue and may even induce headaches for some.
You may have a beautiful spa room that’s a delight to your clients, but unless you can set the space so that it’s workable for you, you’ll put more personal discomfort into your work. Remember, your client is in your workspace for perhaps ninety minutes; you are there all day. A few things to consider are as follows:
- Adjustment of your worktable and chairs so that you’re not standing or sitting awkwardly. If you share space with other therapists, give each other time before or after a treatment to adjust equipment for the time you’re there.
- Never stand with your knees locked while you’re working. The small of your back should be soft, your knees slightly bent while you stand. Keep fluid in your movements.
- If you have any control over the floor covering in your room, try to ensure that the floor that you’re standing or moving around on is lightly cushioned.
- Along the same lines, pay attention to your footwear. Breathable cotton socks should be chosen over stockings. Shoes or sandals should be supportive without being restrictive. If possible, wear sandals or shoes that don’t restrict the heel area. This alone can get rid of nagging back aches.
- Your hands are your main tool. In the East, there are many ways to keep them strong, such as the Chinese metal hand balls and a Tibetan series known as Tai Wu. But, besides these more esoteric techniques, one of the most important points to keep in mind when you work on your client is to not torque your wrists so that they’re cocked too forward or bent backward. This blocks vital force, or prana, from reaching the fingers properly and can contribute to carpal tunnel syndrome. Again, rinse your hands with cool water between clients. If you tend to be more vata in nature and have joints that generally give you pain or pop frequently, massage oil into your wrists and finger joints before you begin to work.
- Wear undergarments and clothing made of natural fibers, such as cotton. Synthetics tend to hold an electrostatic charge. If this charge stays around your body all day, you’ll feel more tired. If you need to wear a lab coat, encourage your spa to look for ones that have a higher percentage of cotton. The same applies to t-shirts. If nothing else, be sure that your socks and underwear are high in cotton content.
Management & Scheduling
I mention this last, because of all the factors under your control as a therapist, this may be the one that you can do little about.
On that note, allow me to address those who do have control over these matters–spa owners and directors.
Your therapists can make or break your reputation. Long after the Chinese wall hangings in your reception area, the elegance of your sinks in the changing rooms, or the high-end celebrity-endorsed products in the retail area, clients will remember how they were touched and nourished. This is why they come.
When I was training as a social worker, part of my study was researching the reasons why some companies are more successful than others. The primary factor that makes one company more successful than another is how well management treats its staff. The logic is simple: If you train your staff well, and give them what they need to be healthy and happy in what they do, they will, in turn, pass it on. They will make clients feel cared for.
It is a well-known fact that staff turnover in spas is high. Some place blame on staff being young, inexperienced, or unstable at home. Some think that workers leave for better money offered elsewhere. However, research indicates that people leave places of work when they feel undervalued. I’d venture to say that the most on goingly successful spas in the world are ones that make their staff as happy as their clients. For sure, your staff may want more money and better benefits. If you have the funds, they certainly deserve it. But, if you really want to contribute to the prevention of burnout, think seriously about adequate training and well-paced scheduling. In these matters, the experts to listen to are your therapists.
Therapist and staff burnout ceases to be a critical spa problem when staff and therapists take better care of themselves, and you take better care of them. In that way, a deeper, more rewarding work life and experience will translate into satisfied and loyal clients for years to come.