Eric Stephenson takes us inside Elements Massage weathering the pandemic. From establishing new protocols to examining client interaction, Elements Massage’s safety committee worked to build safety standards, client reassurance, and personal connection in a time of isolation. The result: with more than 450,000 massages given in their 250 clinics since May 1, Elements Massage has a .01% COVID-19 positive connection rate with their studios, and zero outbreaks at any studio to date. Eric also discusses his life mission of increasing MT career longevity in the profession and provides some silver-lining optimism for the future of bodywork.
This episode sponsored by Anatomy Trains.
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01:00 Darren Buford: Welcome to The ABMP podcast. My name is Darren Buford, I'm the Editor-in-Chief at Massage & Bodywork Magazine and Senior Director of Communications for ABMP. I'm joined by my co-host, Kristin Coverly, licensed Massage Therapist and Director of Professional Education for ABMP. Our goal is to connect with luminaries and experts in and around the massage, bodywork, and wellness profession in order to talk about the topics, trends, and techniques that affect our listener's practices.
01:26 DB: Our guest today is Eric Stephenson. Eric is a 20-year massage veteran and Chief Wellness Officer for Elements Massage, a 250-unit franchise system headquartered in Denver, Colorado. Eric is also Co-Founder of imassage Incorporated in Delray Beach, Florida, an education and consulting company dedicated to extending the careers of massage therapists and spa practitioners through customized continuing education focusing on preventing injury and worker's compensation claims. Eric creates continuing education specializing in teaching Deep Tissue Massage that doesn't harm the therapist or the client. All of his workshops focus on saving your hands with his no thumbs approach and core body mechanics that help prolong your career. In 2014, he joined the Board of Directors of the International Spa Association in Lexington, Kentucky. His experience as an entrepreneur, consultant, and speaker in the wellness industry have taken him around the world. And in his spare time, he works on becoming the fifth member of Van Halen.
02:25 DB: Hello, Eric, how are you?
02:28 Eric Stephenson: Hello, Darren, it's good to be here. Thank you so much.
02:32 DB: And hello, Kristin, how are you?
02:34 KC: Hi, welcome.
02:35 DB: I think we've gotta start with that Van Halen thing at the end of the bio there. So are you looking to become the fourth singer or the third bassist? I need to know.
02:45 ES: Well, actually neither, I'm looking to become the second guitar player.
02:52 DB: [chuckle] Are you gonna back up Eddie or take over for Eddie?
02:54 ES: Actually, no, it's funny because I call myself a recovering musician, I spent the first 20 years of my life attempting to be a rockstar, so Van Halen was always the band that I adored, and I think one of these days it could come true. Who knows?
03:12 KC: Always holding out hope. Never give up. [chuckle]
03:14 ES: Always.
03:16 KC: So, Eric, rumor has it, you have a really interesting story about your postman and massage therapy, willing to share?
03:23 ES: Yeah, and thanks for asking that. I first wanna just start out by thanking you both for inviting me to this and saying hello to all the therapists out there, I know there's going to be a lot of listeners. And first and foremost, I just wanna give a huge shout out to everyone worldwide in a massage and spa profession for really helping people manage their incredible stress and anxiety during this time and doing it with such grace. It really has a massive impact. And I know a lot of you see that day in and day out in your practices now. But I see that over the course of 250 studios, over 3,600 massage therapists every day, so it's taken a huge amount of focus and commitment, which is what we're gonna talk about today to get to the point of closing down practices and reopening. And I've had some time over this period and so many of us have to look at my whole history and the profession and say, really, this is a time of really great focus and commitment, and one story keeps coming to mind. I had moved from my home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina to Lexington, Kentucky back in 2004, and for the first three months that I was in Lexington, I was not gainfully employed.
04:33 ES: So I would sit on the couch and every afternoon around 2 o'clock, the postman would come and deliver the mail. And I'd go out and get my mail, and as any massage therapists listening, knows we get some crazy mail, right? And we get this massage mail, and it's got everything from myofascial release to cranial sacral therapy, to crystal healing, to deep tissue massage, and I thought to myself, "I wonder what my postman thinks about all of this mail that he's delivering to this massage therapist here." So one day I went out and I actually greeted him and said, "Hello, you're my postman. My name's Eric Stephenson," and, of course, one of the first questions he asked me was, "Are you a massage therapist?" And I thought, "Well, here it comes." And I said, "Yeah." And it was really amazing to me because what he said to me next took me by total surprise. He said, "Well, I'm gonna be going to a massage school," and I was thrown back from him, I said, "What?" And he said, "Yes, I've just enrolled in the Lexington Healing Arts Academy," and of course, that's where I would go on to teach.
05:36 ES: So one of the things that occurred to me very quickly was you never can judge a book by its cover, you never can assume that you're going into a situation where you know everything that's gonna happen or what you're gonna find. So consequently, my postman actually enrolled in school, and he wasn't in the class that I taught because, at the time, I was a lead instructor at the school when he ended up being enrolled. But he came to me shortly after graduation and said, "Look, I know that your specialty is really all around career longevity and self-care and body mechanics. Can I come get a tutorial from you?" And I said, "Sure, come on. Let's do the tutorial." So he came and after observing him in the first tutorial, I thought, "Wow." We really have a lot of work to do. He had a really bad Achilles tendon injury and he had some self-esteem issues going on with that, just in terms of his thought that he could really make it in the profession, but what was amazing to me is he kept showing up and showing up, and he committed to getting better every single day.
06:40 ES: And so finally I said to myself, "I gotta get on this guy's table. I have to experience this work." And I will tell the both of you that when he put his hands on me and gave me a massage, I thought to myself, "This man is gifted." In fact, by the end of the massage, I thought, "This is one of the best sessions I've ever received in my life." So as time went on, I became his client. So at one point, he was my postman and I was his client, and then I said, "You know what? You should really start helping me in my workshop." So he became my teaching assistant. And to this day, he's one of my dearest friends. And he literally has traveled all over the world with me, helping me in my workshops, and it's really a true testament to overcoming adversity, being resilient, focusing, and committing. So Chuck the postman, still lives in Lexington, Kentucky, he still helps me out with a lot of the work that I do in the massage profession, and if he's listening, I love you, Chuck.
07:43 DB: That is fantastic. I love that. Also, can I say as someone who was born and raised in Kentucky and has a master's degree from the University of Kentucky, Go Cats!
07:53 ES: Yeah. [chuckle] I'm a Tar Heels. So I was in the middle of Kentucky country, which was a little difficult, but we can talk about that in another time.
08:02 DB: Alright, let's shift to what I know our listeners wanna know about, and I'm sure they're curious about. How has Elements Massage weathered the pandemic storm?
08:10 ES: As everyone listening knows, it's taken a huge amount of that focus and commitment to get to the point of closing down and reopening practices around the world, for that matter. So at Elements Massage, 2020 really started out as one of the best years we've ever had, so we were firing on all cylinders, business was great, people were demanding massage even in excess of the supply that we had in terms of therapist being able to give massage, but in mid-March, all of our studios began closing and by March 24th, they were pretty much all closed down. So everyone had to adjust, what was happening, as we saw for the first time a world where massage wasn't gonna be happening. So I've never seen that in my career, I'm sure that most people listening have never seen that as well. So we're connecting with the studio owners, keeping the lines of communication strong, providing all the guidance they needed to navigate the health of their businesses while they were closed. As you can imagine, it's scary for a lot of these owners to have a lot on the line, and then all of a sudden there's no income coming in.
09:20 ES: So the closure period, it really was a chance for us and the entire support team in Denver to come together to support the health, safety, and a plan for reopening when the time came. So that included consulting with the CDC guidelines around health and safety, reaching out to disease experts and getting their opinion about how to reopen safely, consulting OSHA guidelines for sanitation, and really just communicating with the wider massage profession, industry associations like ABMP in the spirit of best practicing, moving forward. So at Elements Massage, we have a specific approach to the touch points during a massage and what we call the service path. So that's any touch point that either could increase or decrease client satisfaction. And we use these touch points to really develop a parallel safety path, we call it, that could examine every little piece of the massage experience to ensure the safest approach to reopening. So that was really the approach we took. We looked at every single little touch point, every little single possible place where safety could be enhanced, and that's exactly what we did during the time when the studios were closed.
10:39 KC: Thanks Eric, for sharing that journey with Elements, I think a lot of people can relate whether they're employees somewhere or have their own practice too, how it's just been a step-by-step journey. So you talked about your safety path, can you tell us a little bit more about the different protocols that you've instituted across that path?
10:57 ES: Yeah, so again, looking at every single little touch point, really asking ourselves the question from all the information we have, how can we provide the safest environment possible for clients and employees alike. That became, well, curbside check-in, that could be something that could be implemented so clients can let us know, we can minimize the amount of people in the lobby, minimize the amount of contact that they're gonna have with individuals coming into the studios. Obviously, the clients had to answer the health screening questions in terms of booking, which would be a verbal confirmation prior to their appointment confirmation, either verbal or email. And then obviously at the time of their session as well, using the recommended health screening form that the CDC had put out in the questions.
11:44 ES: So really following that, not just for the clients, but also having all employees answer those questions yes or no prior to the studio reopening every day. All the clients are required to have their temperature taken via touchless thermometers well prior to their session. The employees are required to have their temperature taken at the start of their shift each day. All of the massage therapists must wear a mask when in the lobby, during any interaction with a client, when in the break room. So masking was something that was universal for all of the therapists across the system, and even looking at what type of mask they were gonna wear, so mask with the bacterial filter efficiency at a certain percentage or higher, making sure that all of the sanitation went to all the pieces in the massage room itself. So we got rid of the blanket, we went to a single-use blanket and/or an extra sheet. We didn't use massage holsters anymore. So really, any little place where we could increase the safety, we looked at. And then of course, having a 15-minute turnover time between the sessions so that the therapist can perform the necessary sanitation protocols and do a proper professional recommendation to the client as well. So having that extra time for some of those exposure times on the sanitation product.
13:12 ES: So it's obviously tough because as massage therapists, going back to work, it's one of the reasons that people love working in a group practice so much or a place like Elements Massage, you have that physical support network and community with the therapists that you work with and the other people in the studio, but we really had to look at reducing the physical contact between co-workers. And the training, training, training went into that so much. It was just getting the therapist comfortable with what the changes are, getting them to understand the why behind the changes, and then saying, "This period's gonna be hard. We're gonna have to really be diligent about not having too much close contact with each other even when we're in the the studio." So those were some of the bigger things that we put in place.
14:05 DB: Hey, do you have to review or re-adjust any of these protocols as time has gone on since shutdown in March?
14:13 ES: Yeah, that's really a great question. We have a safety committee that meets regularly because it's obviously a very fluid situation. Sometimes, information changes daily. Certainly, we clean monthly. So our safety committee meets on a regular basis to review all the protocols and look at any changes that may affect the safety of, again, the clients or the therapists and the people that work in the Elements Massage studio. So safety is really a non-negotiable in the studio, it has to be a team effort. And I can say that we really haven't adjusted much from opening. We had a very thorough safety and sanitation document that went out to all the Elements Massage studios for the owners, the managers, the team members to review and to train on. And much of that is still in place today. In fact, just about all of it, our safety rating from our clients has been extremely high. We've done some surveys with our clients, and our clients have rated us 9.5 out of 10 in terms of our safety rating, and our employees, is it right about a nine. So in terms of adjusting anything, we really haven't had to do that because we feel that what we have in place is ensuring the health and safety of everyone. But we're always looking at adjusting as information comes out unless we need to do that.
15:39 KC: Yeah, that's great. And imagine having a client safety rating of 9.5. First of all, amazing number, but secondly, that really says a lot that you're asking the clients to rate what they think of your safety protocols. That's really important. I think that's a lesson for everyone, to check in and see how things are going on both sides. Don't assume that everything you're doing is resonating with the clients too. I love that. Shifting and talking a little bit more about clients, can you tell us a little bit more about the steps that Elements Massage took to communicate with clients during the closing and reopening process? And then also, since studios have been reopening, what's client volume been like? How are people coming back?
16:19 ES: Yeah, so what we've found is that client demand for massage has been very, very strong. And certainly, people had a chance during the downtime of the pandemic, whether it was a couple of months or in some states, even longer to go without their massage, they really started to realize, "Wow, my headaches are coming back." Or, "My back pain is coming back." Or, "My anxiety levels are going up." And certainly, all of our anxiety levels have been going up. And I read a census bureau study at the end of May that said as many as a third of Americans were suffering from clinical anxiety or depression at that point. So the client volume certainly spoke to all of the stress, all the anxiety, all of the pain, the absence of massage therapy being part of a client's normal monthly routine or weekly routine. So we found that the client demand had, that's been very strong, initially, and that continues to this day.
17:27 ES: And as far as the steps that we took to communicate with clients during the closing and reopening, there was so much confusion during the reopening, and there was so much misinformation going on and really, it was about personal connection on the phone. That's been one of the keys to this period of time, people really wanted to connect. They wanted to be listened to, they wanted to be walked through the increased safety and sanitation protocols. And really, we're just looking for reassurance that they could come back and receive a massage in a safe way. So in terms of that personal connection on the phone, I talked to many of my industry contacts in the spa industry and the massage industry and they said phone call times, really, had been increasing to be three times as long. So that was something that I heard across the board, people were really just looking to connect. And then on top of that, obviously, the other avenues that we were connecting would be the traditional email format, as well as social media, but there was really this connection theme seemed to be one of the keys to reopening.
18:36 ES: Most of our studios, except for a few in California, had been open for the last three to four months. And Elements Massage has performed just over 450,000 massages across the country since, let's call it May 1st. And obviously, in that time, all of these stringent cleaning requirements and safety protocols have kept clients and employees safe. And with all those massages, we've had a positive case attached to less than 50 of all performed services out of those 450,000. So that comes out to about 0.01 of all performed services. And those cases didn't necessarily contract it at the studio, they simply had a connection to the studio. There have been zero multiple person outbreaks at any of our studios. So I think that's important for a lot of the therapists listening to understand, because I really haven't seen a lot of data come out in terms of how safe massage really is. But we know now from looking at all these and having very stringent policies around documenting these cases and recording these cases and reporting these cases, that massage is a very safe proposition based on the data we have. And even comparing notes with other larger systems, other larger massage franchises, other spas that we've talked to seems to be pretty consistent. So I thought that was really important to add for listeners out there.
20:08 DB: No, that's excellent. I'm thinking of the therapists out there who may have been displaced from their previous employers or even their private practices because of the pandemic. Now, what would be some of the benefits of coming to work at a massage franchise like Elements Massage, especially for a therapist who has never worked in that type of setting before?
20:29 ES: Yeah, so obviously, a lot of people now are gonna be looking for various types of employment just based on shuffling of the cards. I have talked to a lot of therapists that have gone back into their private practices or to employers that they've had before, and I invite them to look at your options, really come into an Elements Massage studio. Talk to the owner, talk to the manager, talk to the team. Get a feel for what the facts are behind working at one of these places, because oftentimes, I think that people have assumptions about working in a spa or working in a massage franchise. And then they go and they experience it and the reality is different and certainly, I alluded to this before, one of the biggest benefits, working at Elements Massage is the community. Over and over again, when I talk to our massage therapists, they talk about the family that they work with in their massage studios and how they feel so connected to their co-workers. And this is important, because research actually shows that the single biggest predictor of your happiness on the planet comes back to your social support network and certainly, that is the people that you work with, your friends, your family. That makes up a big part of how happy you are.
21:46 ES: So, Elements Massage was started by a massage therapist. She had in mind taking care of the therapists so that they could take care of the clients. And we only do massage, so we don't do facials. We don't even sell any retail products. So the therapists that are looking for, "Hey, you know what? I'd love to come in, do what I love, not have to book clients, not have to worry about anything on the business side. Be able to focus just on personalized, customized massage, doing what I love, and being able to do it in a place that is supportive, has the ability to grow my career, and really do it in a drama-free environment." I'd say that that's a big part of the Elements experience. And then, we are looking at ways to bring on therapists that are more experienced that will enable them to not only make more money during a massage session, but increase their skillset in terms of their education and their ability to deliver superior customer service, their ability to possibly even move into management and potentially, even ownership one day.
23:00 KC: Let's shift gears a little bit and talk about your work as an educator. So, over the years, I've been lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with you to bring several of your online courses into the ABMP Education Center. And so from that, I know that one of the overarching themes of your work as an educator is helping to extend the careers of massage therapists. So, can you tell us a little bit more about how you got passionate about that mission?
23:27 ES: Yeah, back in 2006, I read a statistic, and I believe that it said that 60% of therapists were leaving the profession every year. And I started to think about that and I started to talk with therapists that had gone through programs where I was a lead instructor, and I realized a lot of them weren't practicing anymore. And then coming into developing my own company and having a mission around career longevity, it was really about going out into the world and being able to say, "Hey, we're gonna help therapists extend their careers," because a lot of therapists come up to me and say, "I wanna stay in the profession, but my body is not working anymore. I have a ganglion cyst right here on my wrist," or, "I've got burning pain in my scapula, it doesn't go away."
24:18 ES: And I realized that there was really an opportunity for me to go out into the world and help therapists with some key concepts around longevity and self-care that could be the hallmark of my workshop. So, that's been a passion for mine ever since I was a teacher in massage school, and really shapes most of the work that I still do in the world when it comes to teaching therapists how to stay healthy so that they can see clients for as long as their heart's desire. So I did come up with a whole approach called Intelligent Deep Tissue Massage. I worked closely with ABMP on some really great content. And yeah, it's very near and dear to my heart to keep therapists in the profession so that they can practice for as long as they want to.
25:07 DB: So now, this is a no-thumbs approach, correct?
25:10 ES: It is, and I'll add a little caveat to that. Therapists love to use their thumbs. Certainly, we have a lot of sensory fibers in our thumbs. And from proprioception standpoint, it's really easy to go ahead and feel things in a client's body. But when it comes to actually doing the work, and especially when it comes to deeper massage, I encourage palpating with your thumbs when it comes time to actually work in a vertical intent, using pressure through muscle layers, through fascia layers, that we use a different tool and not the thumb.
25:47 KC: Eric, let's shift a little bit, talk about a specific modality and one that, I have to admit, I've never received myself. You've developed a Himalayan salt stone massage protocol for Elements Massage. Can you tell us a little bit about the benefits of using Himalayan salt stones over the rocks traditionally used in hot stone massage?
26:04 ES: Yeah, this is a subject that I'm really passionate about. I actually took a stone workshop back in the late '90s, and I wasn't really excited about the work until I went to Iceland. And I went to Iceland with the intent of actually getting my own basalt stones from the volcanic formations there, so, pretty magical. I went to Iceland on this amazing trip, I brought back 11 stones from a beautiful, glacial lagoon in Iceland and my practice exploded. Now, at the time, in my community, there really weren't any therapists practicing stone massage. So not only did I become known as the stone guy, but I started teaching massage therapists how to do stone massage and it really blossomed into teaching it. But what I noticed after a few years of teaching stone massage was a lot of therapists weren't practicing it anymore, and I thought, "Well, what's going on here? Why aren't you practicing this incredible approach using heat?" And many of them said, "Well, it's just simply there's too much prep time, there's too much clean up, it's too laborious to go through all the process. So although clients love it, I'm not in love with it so much when it comes to all of the additional time that I need to spend on it."
27:17 ES: So when I saw the Himalayan salt stones, I actually looked at the product and said, "Wow, this is a game changer," because not only are there benefits from the client perspective, in terms of the heat, which we all know relaxes the parasympathetic nervous system and there may be some beneficial products from the actual properties of the stones, the minerals there, involved in the salt, but from a therapist perspective, it just really cut down on the setup time, the clean-up time, and really what they needed to invest with their resources to practice it. So, another great thing about the Himalayan salt stone massage is that they're really beautiful, so when you walk into the treatment room, you see this beautiful bowl lit up and clients' eyes immediately go to it and say, "Was is that?" And then of course, if you let them hold one of the stones and explain to them what they do, it's a lot different than walking into a traditional river rock or basalt stone massage where it's in a dark roster where you really can't see the stones unless the therapist pulls them out. So aesthetically, they're very pleasing, and from a benefits standpoint, not only the client but the therapist, they really are one of the most innovative products I've seen in my career.
28:41 DB: I think you had me at beautiful, glacial lagoon.
28:44 KC: Me too, let's go to Iceland.
28:47 ES: Yeah, it was a magical trip, and I will tell you that whatever happened to me when I was on that beach collecting those stones, it was literally part of my destiny and I brought those stones back to the United States, really made a pact with nature and said, "I'm gonna go back and use these in a healing way," and that's exactly what I did. So that trip will, and that country really will always be very special to me.
29:13 DB: Okay, final question here. In terms of a silver lining for the profession going forward from here, what do you see?
29:20 ES: Ah, that's a great question. Well, I'm an eternal optimist, and in my career I've gone through a lot of life events, world events as many of your listeners have, and massage has always prevailed. I do think that Mother Nature ultimately wants us all to be in close contact with each other, and as a society, we're gonna be living with COVID-19 into the future. It's pretty clear that nearly every industry has had to adjust in some way, shape, or form, and it's amazing how resilient and flexible people really have been. So, there was a lot of sentiment out there, initially, a lot of unknowns about, "Is it safe to go back go work?" And the reality is really that a one-on-one massage with all these proper safety protocols, and precautions, and sanitation aspects that we put in place, it appears to have little risk. So, it's a big burden to ask the therapist to do all this extra work to, again as you said, take on the mental load of having to pay attention to all these small details. But on the other hand, the world needs us now more than ever, especially the healing power of massage when it comes to all that we know about its help with pain management, medical conditions, anxiety, depression, isolation.
30:41 ES: And I really want to point out that for us at Elements Massage, we've looked at our client satisfaction scores, and they've never been higher. So I think one of the silver linings is, "Wow, in this time of pandemic, when there's so much uncertainty, that our clients have never been happier." And so for me, the story there really is, if we come back to some of these key principles from the therapeutic alliance and the therapeutic relationship that takes place during a massage, the level of empathy that a therapist has established, the level of trust, the level of safety, the level of listening, communication, compassion. These are the things that clients are really commenting on when I go in and look at the commentary. So, the satisfaction score has never been higher, and for me, that's a real silver lining here coming back to clients saying, "This is what we love about massage. We love to come in to be treated as an individual, to be seen for who we are, to be acknowledged, to be listened to, and to be worked with rather than worked on." And that to me, is one of the biggest silver linings here, coming out of this pandemic, and even being in the midst of it, that we really see, once again, the power and the ability for a massage to help and to heal.
32:11 KC: Wow, thank you Eric. Yeah, thank you for working with us to bring this great information to our listeners.
32:18 ES: Yeah. And I invite therapists out there, that if they are looking to a place to call home, to come visit one of our Elements Massage studios, talk to the owner, the manager, the therapist. Many owners are willing to give a complimentary massage as part of your interview process, so you can come in as a client and experiencing it. And just go ahead and investigate various places and employment. The only way you're gonna know the reality is to actually step in and experience it firsthand. And thank you again for inviting me to be on the podcast, and thank you again for all the great work that ABMP has done to help therapists navigate and stay current and get communication and information over the past six months.
33:05 DB: Thanks so much. Thanks for joining us today, Eric. Where can listeners find out more information about Elements Massage?
33:12 ES: Yeah, you can go to elementsmassage/careers, to go to our career website, and you can type in your zip code to see what studios are nearest to you and use that as an opportunity to reach out, and again, just talk with the owner, the manager at that location about what your career aspirations are and what they have to offer.
33:37 DB: Excellent. Thank you so much, Eric, and thank you, Kristin.
33:40 KC: Thanks, Eric, thanks for joining us.
33:42 ES: Thank you again. Have a brilliant day, and thanks for all the listeners out there for hanging with us today.
33:50 Speaker 4: This has been a production of Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. ABMP is the leading association for massage therapists and bodywork professionals in the United States and beyond. From liability insurance to professional advocacy, award-winning publications to the world's largest continuing education library for massage to this podcast, no organization provides more for its members and the profession than ABMP. ABMP works for you.
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