The Long Haul

Prolonging Your Career Longevity

By Susan Epperly

Over the course of my (nearly decade-long) massage therapy career, I’ve encountered various statistics regarding the average length of time massage professionals spend in the industry. I’ve seen estimates ranging from two to eight years (which is, admittedly, a wide range), but regardless of massage therapists’ actual average career span, even the upper end of that spectrum seems like a disappointingly short period of time to practice a trade for which we’ve trained so diligently.
Every year, too many MTs experience despair when they’re forced to give up their dream career prematurely due to quality-of-life issues such as burnout or compassion fatigue; physical ailments such as repetitive-use injuries; or the financial stagnation and eventual failure of their businesses.
It would be a mistake to assume, however, that mere luck or fate determines which person’s career will stand the test of time and which will suffer an untimely demise. There are a number of strategies we can employ in order to prolong our careers, and the more we familiarize ourselves with these tactics, the better our chances of enjoying our life’s work for as long as we choose.

Good Ergonomics = Good Economics
In massage school, most of us were trained to embrace ergonomically sound stances, postures, and techniques that minimize strain and allow us to leverage our body weight to apply pressure to our clients’ muscles. Breathing techniques, mindfulness exercises, and proper table height were likely also covered.
While most of us probably started our massage careers with portable massage tables that require manual height adjustment, graduating to an electric hydraulic table, for me, has been revolutionary. The ability to adjust the height of the table mid-treatment has helped me ensure that I never have to stand on my tiptoes or stoop to address various areas of my client’s body.
While an electric table represents a significant investment, and may not be something you can afford to add to your practice right away, saving for this piece of equipment can help you continue to happily and painlessly provide massage.
Other lower-tech (and less expensive) equipment that can help you reinforce proper body mechanics include step stools, shock-absorbing rubber floor mats, and rolling stools. Despite requiring minimal investment, these pieces can help significantly decrease detrimental, career-shortening effects on your body.

Rise of the Machines
In addition to my hydraulic table, there are a good many other electric gizmos and gadgets in my treatment room that help me work smarter rather than harder. Not only do I have machines that can assist me in providing the manual therapies I offer (such as a device that allows me to target and alleviate trigger points mechanically rather than manually), I have also incorporated a variety of other therapies into my practice that are provided exclusively by mechanical means. This allows me to offer my clients a wider variety of techniques, and the fact that these services are administered mechanically means less physical exertion on my part. Of course, using these electronic tools properly and safely requires a particular level of mindfulness as you apply pressure and ensure you’re in tune with your client’s body.

Tools Rule
Effective tools need not be electrical in order to help prolong your career. Rigid supports for your thumbs, handheld molded massagers, and cupping tools can all assist you in providing a great massage without putting your joints in jeopardy.
Cupping is one tool-based modality I have embraced wholeheartedly. I frequently reach for a set of vacuum cups while providing bodywork, and I also offer an entire service centered on facial cupping. I even produced a training video to help other MTs learn how to provide this great treatment. Not only does this modality require much less physical exertion and hand strength than providing traditional bodywork, it can even be provided while the practitioner is seated, making it a wonderful way to incorporate a bit of a break into one’s otherwise physically demanding day.   
Yet another low-tech tool I have embraced is therapeutic tape. There are several brands, such as Kinesio Tape, Kinesiology Tape, RockTape, and more. While there is minimal investment required to purchase the tape, the real expense comes in the form of the extensive training required to use it effectively. I attended a 32-hour continuing education program many years ago and invested in a variety of manuals, and now I can deliver dramatic results by simply and quickly providing a customized tape application.

Face Facts
Even if your massage program didn’t spend much time focusing on facial massage, don’t discount this modality as a potentially lucrative specialty that can minimize the toll on your body.
Facial massage treatments can command significant fees (potentially as much or more than bodywork sessions), and can be provided from a seated position. Proper ergonomics must still be observed, of course, but the ability to incorporate a few lower-impact sessions into your schedule can mean the difference between striding past the finish line and losing steam just shy of the work day’s end.
Another way to add value to facial treatments is to design your own signature service by using specialty brands of facial massage lubricants and other skin-supporting products. By delivering added value in the form of effective products, we can reduce the need to deliver results exclusively by way of manual therapies.  

Hands Down
Even MTs who are averse to the use of tools (electrical or otherwise) can take measures to minimize the risk of repetitive-use injuries to their hands. Exploring the use of one’s elbows, forearms, or even feet (as in the technique known as barefoot massage, or ashiatsu) can open a trove of professional tools that can make an MT’s job easier. If you attended a massage program that did not include instruction in the use of elbows, forearms, and other body parts in the provision of bodywork, then investigating continuing education courses that cover these techniques can be invaluable in lengthening your professional journey.
Hillary Arrieta, owner of Gaia Bodywork in Richardson, Texas, explains how learning barefoot massage has contributed to the stamina of her massage therapy career: “I chose to study ashiatsu because right away after school I noticed that my lower back didn’t like long hours of tilting over the massage table. Even with decent body mechanics, I had a considerable amount of pain and inflammation in my sacroiliac joints. Ashiatsu allows me to provide my clients with the deep work they love while taking care of my body so I can have a long career. I’ve been at it for 11 years and still going strong!”

Continuing Education: Choose Wisely
Most of us are required to obtain a certain number of hours of continuing education every year, but choosing that coursework wisely can mean the difference between simply checking a licensing requirement off the list and actually journeying into a whole new arena of professional enrichment and practice expansion.
When looking for continuing education courses, always look for curriculum that can assist you in prolonging your career. Classes that teach less physically taxing modalities become more and more important to MTs with each additional year.

Water Down Exertion with Hydrotherapy
Hydrotherapy is an invaluable way to prolong your career. The application of moist heat to muscles prior to the implementation of manual work can help our massage strokes go deeper more quickly, which can help us accomplish more in less time. Not only does this require less elbow grease on our part, but the ability to satisfy our clients’ needs in less time will keep them coming back for many years to come.

Sell Your Smarts
Another innovative way to enliven and extend your career is to diversify your practice by exploring other, less physically intensive revenue streams. This essentially means developing ways to earn income by charging for your knowledge, experience, and expertise rather than exclusively for your bodily exertion. We all set our massage rates in accordance with our level of expertise, but it can also be helpful to consider ways in which you can get paid to provide your expertise through education. The name of the game with this strategy is to profit from the power of your brain rather than your brawn.
This angle can take many forms, including organizing and charging for informational seminars (geared either toward clients or other practitioners); writing articles for professional publications; contributing educational pieces to local health and wellness periodicals; or hiring oneself out to other practitioners or spas as a coach, consultant, or mentor.
Many MTs are motivated to obtain their teaching credentials (as I have done) so they can teach at their local massage schools and/or teach continuing education classes.  Another teaching opportunity is offered by community colleges and universities that have professional development or personal enrichment programs. Designing and teaching a course to colleagues or the general public through one of these programs can be a lucrative part-time endeavor and can also put you in touch with prospective mentoring and massage clients.
Andrea Fleming, owner of Green Lotus Bodyworks in Austin, Texas, has found designing and teaching continuing education courses to be an integral element of her 12-year massage career. “After many years of practice, my business has become somewhat sparse during the summers, since I have many regular clients who travel during that time,” she says. “Now, I fill in my summers by providing small continuing education classes and mentoring students in reiki. The flexibility and diversity that teaching is able to bring into my practice has been a welcome development in my career.”  

Invest In Self-Care
Thankfully, self-care is a topic that enjoys a prominent role in most massage therapy education programs. We are fortunate that our predecessors in the industry have identified the real need for self-care education and have insisted on its inclusion in our vocational training.
Vicky L. Bryant, an MT in private practice at Bodywork Dynamics & Massage in Concord, North Carolina, has fortified her career longevity for the past eight years by adhering to her own formula for success, the foundation of which is self-care. “Longevity is vital for me in this amazing industry. Therefore, I follow my personal three S’s. Self-care is critical, because if I don’t take care of myself, I am of no service to my clients. Schedule effectively, affording enough time between clients and embracing my limits regarding how many clients I see in a day or a week. Smile a lot, because this work is designed to be fun, so I welcome joy and gratitude into every session I perform.”
Self-care encompasses not only employment of proper ergonomics, but also maintenance of healthy boundaries; the ability to be nurturing to ourselves and to embrace our own limitations; and the ability to recognize our own need to unplug periodically, step away from our work, and enjoy whatever leisure activities that bring us joy.
Making time for those purely recreational endeavors that make us glad to be alive is an important way to avoid professional burnout. We are all, no doubt, passionate about our work, and honing our craft most certainly brings us joy. However, don’t neglect the psychological need to indulge in fun and relaxing experiences that are completely unrelated to work. After all, indulging in pleasurable activities that make you happy will remind you why you work so hard at building your practice.   
In addition to burnout, another hazard to watch out for is compassion fatigue. This can be particularly common in clinical or medical settings in which MTs are addressing clients’ (potentially disabling) myofascial pain, or assisting clients with other ailments or chronic conditions. Even with the healthiest boundaries firmly in place, there comes a point at which we must detox from the challenges and despair our clients bring to the table.
You should never feel guilty for becoming overwhelmed by your clients’ pain, suffering, and distress. Experiencing overwhelm as a response to being continually exposed to clients’ struggles is likely just a sign that you need to take some time for yourself and disengage from your work for a time. This time away need not necessarily be a prolonged hiatus for an exotic (and expensive!) vacation. Maybe it’s just a mental health day, when you step away from your practice, sleep in, get a pedicure, enjoy a massage, take a hike, go to the beach, or spend the day relaxing at the movies. Cleansing your mind by crafting personal time and having fun can do wonders to get you recharged and ready to go again.   
Beth Scupham, a bodywork practitioner and exercise instructor in practice for 25 years in Atlanta, credits reflection and contemplation for the impressive span of her professional path. “I think an abiding passion for hands-on healing, as well as a continuing curiosity about the meeting place of body, mind, and spirit, has kept me in the game. My own spiritual and physical practices—yoga, qigong, meditation, prayer, worship, and teaching therapeutic exercise—have kept me healthy enough to endure the physical rigors of a bodywork practice of 30–40 hours a week.”

In Praise of a Raise
One surefire way to sabotage your own career longevity is to fail to ensure that your rates are keeping up with inflation. Many of the MTs I know whose practices have failed after having been in business for many years neglected to take this simple measure. Those of us who are our own bosses simply must give ourselves regular raises.
It may seem to make sense to continue to charge longtime clients the same rate they’ve always paid. After we develop a special rapport and endearing relationship with a client, it can seem awkward to break the news that we must increase our rates. However, if you find yourself continuing to charge all of your clients the same rate they paid on their very first visit (especially if it was 15 years ago), your income is not going to be able to keep up with the cost of living (and you’re certainly not going to be able to make any financial strides like contributing to a retirement account, investing, or building up a savings account).
In some cases, you may decide you want to offer a special client a price break or freeze the rate he or she pays, perhaps as a gesture of gratitude for the client’s long-term loyalty, or because he or she is on a fixed income and would have to discontinue therapy as a result of a price increase. This is your prerogative, and each of us makes concessions to various clients for a variety of reasons. As a unique exception, this is fine. However, extending this kind of courtesy to all your clients will quickly put you in the poor house and preclude any progress for your own livelihood.
This being said, giving clients adequate notice when you do raise your rates is important. When I raise my rates, I make sure my clientele knows what is coming well in advance and offer them the opportunity to stock up on massage sessions by pre-paying for some sessions at the current rate. This technique can provide a welcome windfall that can help cushion the blow of any temporary downturn your practice may suffer as a result of the rate increase.

Prolong Your Career Longevity Like a Boss
Another strategy many MTs employ in order to increase their income and ensure their careers’ endurance involves hiring employees or independent contractors to work within their practice.
This can be a great way to expand one’s business, but care must be taken to ensure that we’re working within our legal parameters. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has strict rules regarding the difference between employees and independent contractors, and misclassifying the people who work with you can have catastrophic (and expensive) ramifications. Consulting with an accountant, tax preparer, and/or labor lawyer can be helpful in making sure you’re not putting your practice in jeopardy by attempting to increase your revenue in this manner.
The folks at the IRS are also happy to help you understand the rules surrounding classifying employees and independent contractors correctly; is a great place to start.  
Jeff Lutz, owner of The Pain Treatment & Wellness Center in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and a practicing MT for nearly 14 years, agrees that seeking out knowledgeable business professionals as allies is an essential step toward career and business longevity. “It’s important to have a firm grasp on the books and the taxes from the very start of the business. A CPA, preferably one who works with other MTs, is invaluable.”
Keep in mind that by granting your stamp of approval to the MTs who work within your business, you are potentially risking your practice’s reputation. Any employees or contractors you hire must be licensed professionals you trust implicitly, because their mistakes or mistreatment of clients will reflect on your own professional reputation. One expensive (and potentially irreparable) incident of damage to your reputation will make any profits you may have earned seem like meaningless pocket change.
If you’re not interested in having other massage professionals work under your supervision, you can still diversify your income by subleasing some of your space to trusted colleagues. Whether you own or rent your office space, if you have a room that is not being utilized fully, renting that room to another health and wellness practitioner can not only ease the burden of your monthly lease or mortgage payment, it can also potentially contribute to a symbiotic collaboration between like-minded professionals.

To Infinity and Beyond!
We’ve all known massage professionals whose careers just seem to “keep on keepin’ on.” While it may seem easy to chalk up such phenomena to random chance, it’s no accident that these folks’ professional journeys have endured and flourished throughout the years. They have likely thought long and hard about how to nurture their careers and have probably embraced some of the aforementioned creative strategies in order to guarantee the greatest degree of career durability possible. Following their lead and emulating these tactics can help you forge and follow a long, fruitful professional path to its fullest potential.    

Susan Epperly works with her MT husband, Shane, in their East Austin Clinical Massage Therapy Practice, Tiger Lily Studios. In addition to contributing her massage comic, A Touch of Humor, to ABMP’s Blog at, Susan and Shane (both massage instructors) also create a variety of educational products in both digital and physical formats (ebooks, audio books, videos, and more) for their fellow wellness practitioners. These products are available for purchase on their website,