Self Advocacy and Massage Employment

posted Aug 14, 2010, 6:40 AM by breath balance   [ updated Aug 14, 2010, 6:51 AM ]
I regularly hear that massage therapy has one of the highest burnout rates of any industry. When I first started in massage I read that the average career length for MT’s was about 2 years. My response was “how can this be?” I was so excited to get hired at my first job, and I already loved what I did, but within a week it became clear what could cause the “burnout rate.”

Some of the rooms of that first clinic I found myself in were almost unnavigable, and my benefits were about a tenth what I was getting in my previous job. No paid vacation, no sick time, no health benefits, no service discounts, and massage rooms that were nearly impossible to practice good bio-mechanics in.

It was bizarre to go from a non-massage employer who made us regularly sit through training sessions on proper bio-mechanics and ergonomics (Home Depot) to a massage clinic that made good body mechanics next to impossible. Of course I had not really shopped around for employers, but had jumped at a job where a close friend worked and had recommended me.

That was my first mistake, my second was that I did not have a clear picture of what my needs were in massage until they weren’t being met. I had no idea for example that I should take a close look at the rooms I would be working in before I accepted a job to make sure there was “space” to work.

I spent a great deal of time in massage school trying to decide what “type” of environment I wanted to work in, and what “type” of massage I wanted to do. The “types” were generally clinical versus spa. Would I work with a chiropractor or out at a resort somewhere?  

In the world of massage therapy jobs the lines are not usually so cut and dry. Most of my employers wanted therapists with both spa-type and clinical-type skills.

What I discovered was that I should have been figuring out what conditions I required in order to do the QUALITY of work that I wanted to practice.  It did not take me long to figure out what those conditions were, but that subsequently left me on a collision course with nearly every employer I had in massage therapy.

More than anything I had to learn to be my own advocate. I started this process by refusing to take jobs that required me to do more than 3 consecutive massages and 5 in a day, but requiring this as a condition upon hiring was not enough.

Many employers continually push therapist to do more and more consecutive sessions even though they are told that their session requirements would be met. Everywhere I worked I was continuously turning down “massage number 4,” and getting flack from therapists who were “having to take my massage” which for them ended up being number 6 or 7.

Everywhere I worked I was having to convince my fellow therapists that it was okay to refuse the massage that was scheduled over their lunch break, or that was beyond their maximum number for the day.

Next I found myself fighting for time between sessions. I needed time for a real interview, a real follow up, time to plan my session, and time to take a short break between clients. This was much harder to get. Many massage establishment will not veer from their scheduling pattern once they have developed one they are comfortable with.

Some places I managed to get 30 minutes between sessions, but usually I was stuck with “what everybody else did.” I actually laughed at a potential employer during an interview who bragged about doing 60 minute consecutive massages with no time scheduled between sessions...

“But you will be late for all but your first session.” I said.
“That’s okay. Our clients do not mind.” -interviewer.
“How late are you usually for your last session?” I asked.
“Twenty to thirty minutes.” -interviewer.
“Ha ha... I bet they don’t mind.” (me laughing at interviewer).

That was where the interview ended.  On a side note laughing at your interviewer is not always a good idea, but it turned out that it was not a job I wanted.  

Finally I had to fight to keep employers from telling me how to do my massage. I discovered that the closest thing I was willing to have as a “boss” in my massage room was my client. Too many employers wanted clients to talk to them rather than their therapists. Too often I was told that I shouldn’t expect clients to tell me if they need “more pressure” or “more lotion,” and that I should adopt a level of pressure and/or lotion in my routine that works on everyone.

That is what led me to deciding that I needed to start my own practice.  Massage employment isn’t always bad. In fact overall it was a great experience for me, and I wouldn’t be the therapist and business owner I am today without it. 

Advocating for myself is my most important and powerful business skill. The high burnout rate in massage is not because there are so many “bad employers,” it is because there are so many therapists that just do not stand up for themselves and their own needs. I never met an employer who I believe would not have changed their policies and procedures if more of their therapists had wanted it and insisted upon it.

Which is why self-advocacy is not only the best way to avoid burn out in massage it is also the first step to reversing the high burnout rate in our industry.

-Rainbough Phillips LMT
August 2010