Donít Burn Out

A Massage Veteranís Guide to Career Longevity

By Mary Beth Braun
[Feature]

After years of Sunday nights filled with dread about going to work on Monday morning, I thought to myself, “Enough!” At 25 years old, I had already reached a tipping point in my life, realizing that I would spend a minimum of eight hours per day (approximately 96,000 hours over my career) working to fulfill someone else’s dream. 

 Three years and hundreds of hours of soul searching later, I ended up in massage school. As I look back now over my 17 years as a massage therapist, I see just how much it has changed my life. 

One of many things I reflect upon is how I lasted this long in a profession where burnout and injury are prevalent. What follows is my view of how I’ve been able to succeed over this period of time—one humble veteran’s guide to career longevity.

Create and Sustain a Unique Self-Care Routine

Outside of the treatment room, self-care is the quintessential element of career longevity in bodywork. Despite being very good at taking care of others, when I started going to massage school and working a full-time job, self-care was a foreign concept to me. I began with exercising, something I had been doing since I started swimming at 6 years old, and drinking more water. The lesson here is to begin to build your self-care routine with something that you’re already doing. More importantly, begin with something that you can sustain over time and turn into a habit. There are varying thoughts on how long it takes to form a habit, from 21–66 days, but what it undoubtedly takes is the willingness to begin, followed by consistent action. 

Once one habit is formed, add something else. Keep adding until you have your unique self-care routine. If it’s not tailored to your life, the likelihood of you sustaining it is nil.

The following is my self-care routine. Take what
might work for you and modify any part of it to fit your
life and lifestyle. 

Stay hydrated. My clients would say I’m a water fanatic. I drink at least 64 ounces of water a day, starting when I exercise and continuing all day long.

Move. I move or exercise at least five days a week. My activities include Pilates, strength training, walking, yoga, and Zumba, among other things.

Get regular bodywork. I get a minimum of two massages a month, usually 90 minutes each.

Care for your hands and feet. I get a manicure and pedicure every 4–6 weeks and take care of my nails and cuticles between appointments.

Eat well. I eat smaller portions 5–6 times a day to keep my body fueled.

Practice mindfulness. I use a guided audio meditation for at least 15 minutes, 2–3 times a week to keep me grounded, centered, able to respond better to life’s challenges, and be more present for my clients. 

Connect with close friends. I reach out via email, phone, or text message to get in touch with one of my close friends at least three times a week for support and camaraderie. Additionally, I meet with a close friend in person at least once a month.

Connect with a Mentor and/or Community

Whether you work in a private setting, with just a few other massage therapists, or in a group environment such as a spa or doctor’s office, finding community with other practitioners is important. I know that you’re thinking, “That’s my competition!” but a support system can be critical as you navigate different types of clients, business and professional issues, and the outpouring of physical, mental, and emotional energy that being a massage therapist requires.

I work in a small office with two other people, attend professional conferences, have been a volunteer in the massage profession, and touch base regularly with my mentors. This offers me opportunities to vent frustrations about my practice, vet business ideas, gain insight about certain clients, and gain support both professionally and personally. My mentors and other confidants have become good friends, and I highly value these relationships.

To gain an online outlet 24-7, be sure to check out www.massageprofessionals.com, a social media gathering place for more than 10,000 massage therapists and bodyworkers from across the country. 

Master the Fundamentals

Mastery is possessing or displaying great skill or technique in a certain area. Some suggest it takes a minimum of 10,000 hours, or up to 10 years, to master something. These numbers vary from person to person and are dependent on skill and other factors. Luckily, you have an opportunity to practice your skills with each massage session.

Most massage therapists are encouraged or required to continue their education, and some are taught that mastery comes from more information. I do believe that continuing to learn is a good idea; I have hundreds of hours of advanced classes under my belt. However, most of my mastery has come from my day-to-day practice of working with clients. Eric Stephenson, massage veteran and director of education for iMassage, teaches hundreds of hours of continuing education (CE) each year. He says, “Techniques added on weak fundamentals are ineffective, and neither serve the client nor the massage therapist well.” What, then, are the fundamentals that you need to master for career longevity? They are proper body mechanics, being present, and good communication with the client.

Body Mechanics

Practicing proper body mechanics allows you to use your body with maximum efficiency and effectiveness. You were most likely taught body mechanics in some form during your massage training, but they must be continually perfected in your day-to-day massage practice to avoid injury. Injury is one of the reasons many therapists drop out of the profession. While there are many philosophies surrounding body mechanics, there are a few essential components:

• Keep your core, hands, pelvis, and shoulders facing in the direction of your work.

• Keep your head, spine, and wrists in a neutral position.

• Position yourself behind where you work, not on top of it, with your hands in front of you and shoulders down and relaxed.

• Apply techniques from your center, shifting weight in the legs.

• If you feel pain when you are working, pause, take a breath, and readjust your body to a place of ease.

Being Present

Being present is the second key to mastering the fundamentals. Presence is paying attention and being fully engaged in delivering the massage session. It is often challenging to maintain presence amid life’s distractions. Even the traffic jam you faced on the way to work can linger in your mind. The easiest way to cultivate presence in a massage session is to prepare to enter the room in your own unique way. I stand outside the door, close my eyes, take several deep breaths, then enter the room. When I find myself distracted during a session, I take a few deep breaths. Breathing allows me to slow down, feel what’s under my hands, and make adjustments to my technique accordingly. I find coming back to my breath helps me refocus and maintain my presence in a massage session. Some suggestions for places to start are: 

• Find your own way to center yourself using breath and visualization.

• Work with compassion and from your heart.

• Focus on your breath.

• Slow down your strokes.

• Practice nonjudgment toward yourself and your client. 

Good Communication

There are several critical factors to good communication, but the core is listening to the client’s needs and communicating to the client about how you work in your practice. A clear understanding about how the partnership is being built will help you establish rapport.

Listening begins with a thorough intake process that must include discussion of the client’s symptoms, including details such as how long the problem has been there. This enables you to respond by describing how you will be working in the upcoming session, including your draping procedures, the flow of the session, how you will check in for feedback regarding your pressure and technique, and how you will end the session. 

It is important for you to discuss and adapt to the client’s need to talk or not talk during the session. If the client would prefer not to talk, checking for feedback during the massage should be done briefly, and only in the first session. In subsequent sessions, follow the client’s cues on talking.

Finally, it is important to communicate your recommendations for treatment. No matter what setting you practice in, clients are looking to you as the expert. While researchers have started to study the most effective frequency of massage sessions, there are no definitive answers yet. Based on my anecdotal experience, I initially recommend 2–3 sessions close together, usually once a week. Generally, I have found this is what clients seeking a specific result are willing to commit to, even with possible limitations on time and money. It is also enough for them to see if massage is making a noticeable improvement on their areas of concern. 

After these initial sessions are completed, I encourage clients to begin spreading out their sessions until they notice a significant recurrence of their symptoms. This allows clients to self-monitor their condition, and together we can create an optimal “dose” for their particular circumstances. 

I personally believe people should get a minimum of one massage per month for general health, wellness, and stress relief.

Find Your Passion

When I graduated from massage school, there was little opportunity to work for someone else, so I knew I would be starting and operating a business. Today, there are all kinds of opportunities for massage therapists. No matter what you choose, it is important you find your passion and continually cultivate it. To do this you must build on your fundamental skills and learn what clients you want to work with and what techniques you love. 

You may have always known that you want to work with athletes, people with low-back pain, pregnant women, seniors, or another population. You may have fallen in love with Swedish or deep-tissue massage in massage school, or lymphatic drainage, neuromuscular massage, or some other modality in a CE class. On the other hand, if you work in a spa or a medical setting, the menu of services may dictate what kind of massage you practice. In employment settings, there may be opportunities to take a management role. Or, you may be drawn to teaching others, either in a primary education setting or in a CE class. 

If you are at the beginning of your career, try on different hats and see where your passion lies. Once you figure out your passion, commit yourself to excellence in that area. Gear all your marketing and professional networking efforts toward it, learn as much as you can, and continually refine your skills. For example, if you love working with people with neck pain, target your efforts toward communicating your expertise and passion. Your title may be “neck specialist,” and your tag line, “Specializing in the treatment of neck pain.” You may learn all about current research on the treatment of neck pain and share this in your social media avenues. 

If you have not focused your efforts on your passion, take time to reevaluate your practice. Find a new passion or refocus on an old one. Follow the steps above—it’s never too late to reinvent yourself and your massage career.

 

Work Smarter, Not Harder

Finally, continually seek ways to work smarter, not harder, in your practice. For example, I closely monitor myself for burnout, losing interest, and being exhausted from day-to-day practice. If I notice signs of this, I take immediate action by scheduling time off as soon as possible and invoking my self-care routine.

I also look for affordable ways to spend less time on the details of my practice, outsourcing business activities to other experts and organizing a yearly strategic business planning session.

There are many combinations of ways to achieve longevity in the massage therapy profession. I hope you find the combination that allows you to consistently step back, reevaluate, and ensure you are taking care of yourself, your clients, and your massage practice. 

 Mary Beth Braun owns, and is the chief massage therapist at, One Body Therapeutic Massage in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is also a life and health coach, and coauthor of Introduction to Massage Therapy with Stephanie Simonson (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2007). Contact her at marybeth@marybethbraun.com.