For massage therapists: Preventing burnout


Hello, fellow terapistas!  Sorry long time no deliver.  Time to make up for lost time.  Kind of like a crack mom just released from rehab, trying to re-insert herself into her kids’ lives.  Only I’m not actually going to hell.  Can’t promise the same for the aforementioned.

So anyway, there’s a stat out there that says the average massage therapist lasts about 2 years before leaving the field for one reason or another.  The reasons are plentiful and varied, I’m sure, but in school they stressed that we take great care to prevent this nasty little thing called burnout.  It sneaks up on you and for whatever reason, you simply can’t carry on anymore.

Burnout falls under a few main categories: physical, mental/psychological, and energetic.  Physical is pretty straight-forward; you hurt yourself, wear out some joints, develop some repetitive strain injuries, or inflame some soft tissues.  Either way, you’re not able to continue, even if you really want to.

Mental/emotional burnout relates primarily to boredom, or a lack of passion or enthusiasm.  You no longer feel called to serve in the profession or you sense that you’ve fallen into a rut.  Energetic burnout is often mistaken for physical burnout (in the form of fatigue) or mental/psychological (in that you simply don’t feel like doing massage anymore), but it goes a bit deeper than that.  You might actually start feeling depressed, anxious, faint, or nauseated during (or before, in anticipation of) a session, or you might take a longer time to recover afterward than you should.

No matter what, most of these types of burnout are preventable, or at the very least, they can be minimized.

1.  Take care of you.  Personal care is crucial to career longevity.  This means that you incorporate stretches, strengthening, cardio/aerobic activities, and even professional bodywork into a regular routine.  You don’t have to go all out or anything; do some total body stretching for about 5-10 minutes a day.  Do mini-stretches on your hands/forearms/shoulders/calves while giving a massage, say, in between when switching from their right arm to their left arm or whatever.  Participate in some kind of aerobic activity like martial arts or powerwalking a couple times a week.  If you do any strength or weight training, don’t do it right before a cardio workout.  Make sure to get a massage yourself.  Stay chiropractically adjusted to keep your posture and alignment balanced.  Make sure all of your practitioners are properly licensed to provide what they claim to do.  Also, meditate and relax.  Stay balanced.  Spend some time with friends, some with family, and some alone.  If you don’t take care of yourself, how will you ever be able to take care of anyone else?

2.  Change up your surroundings.  Let’s face it; you spend a significant portion of your day in the same room, within the same walls.  You’re surrounded by the same colors, same patterns, same lighting, same music, same furniture arrangements and light placement, same plants, etc.  Not much changes, unless you change it.

Before I found myself knee-deep in school, I used to provide housecalls, and while they were kind of a pain in the butt, I also found that I enjoyed them.  Each visit was very different.  Doing housecalls offered me a complete change of scenery.  I got to see how they lived, which offered me priceless insight on who they were as people.  I learned a lot about my clients.

When I couldn’t provide a housecall, I was keeping things fresh in the regular in-home studio, too; I frequented Ross to scour the twin sheet section.  I raided IKEA to pick up plants and a few small pieces of furniture and wall art for some finishing touches at a bargain price.

3.  Change up the tunes.  Music definitely qualifies as part of your surroundings, and it’s a big part–so big that I decided to single it out.  Music is a huge part of the session.  Sometimes it’s part of a client’s therapy.  Sometimes it’s part of their relaxation.  Sometimes I use music as a bridge to bring them from the mental state they came in with and transition to the post-massage happy place.  Using music with a beat (often tribal), I can meet them where they are, in the headspace they’re in, and slowly convert them song by song, to the point where they’re finally listening to something totally relaxing by the end.  Sometimes, guiltily, I’ve used music as something to focus on to pass the time.  Before the first stones are cast, please understand that I am indeed focused on the client 100% of the time.  Yes, really.  I am engaged and present.  But please understand that on many a late evening, my sessions ran 2 hours or more, and often later than most massage therapists work.  It is only natural human tendency for the brain to take a small break and then softly come back to the reality at hand.  I’m no different.  Thus, music can be a good distraction.

4.  Change up your routine.  I often informed our clients that even after several years in practice, I never did have a routine, per se.  In fact, I purposefully tried to avoid forming one.  I have personally experienced the cookie-cutter feel of someone just going through the motions and I could definitely tell the difference.  Routines detract from treating the individual client.  I try my best to let my hands do the looking and listening, and to go where I sense would be of most benefit.  I left it up to the client whether I started them face up or face down; by not having a routine, I was prepared for anything and I rolled with the punches.

5.  Add new techniques and tricks to your toolbox.  Take a class every now and then.  It’s required anyway, because you need CEU credits every year (or every 2 years) to renew your license, so make it count, and sign up for something you’re actually interested in.  Sometimes schools or other organizations, or even individual instructors will try to take an existing technique, bastadize it or rehash it, and try to repackage it and sell it to the LMT public as something new, ground-breaking, or earth-shattering.  Obviously, try to avoid these.  Don’t just take a class to take a class, try to unearth some background information first.  By learning something new and either adding a new item to your service menu or incorporating it into your existing custom blend, you freshen things up and keep things interesting–both for yourself and your clients.

6.  Specifically, add gentle techniques to the toolbox.  This is particularly true if you’re facing physical burnout or an injury.  Or maybe you’re suffering mental/psychological/energetic burnout due to the pressure of having to always go hard on clients for whom nothing ever seems to be deep enough.  Learning lymph drainage, myofascial release, or energy work can ease some of those burdons.  It also shows your clients that you’re not just a get-in-and-mash-it type of practitioner; rather, you have some higher skills that can even let you outsmart a muscle.  Work smarter, not harder.

7.  Never work harder than your client is willing to work.  An MT instructor uttered these words years ago that, time and again, save me from overdoing it and running myself into the ground.  There are loads of clients out there who want you to fix them and they pin that onus on you, which puts undue pressure on you to accomplish the impossible.  After all, you’re with them 1-2 hours a month; they are with themselves 24 hours a day.  If they’re not willing to comply with simple recommendations to preserve the progress you’re trying to make with them, then don’t drive yourself into the ground trying to go all out for them.  Their health and progress obviously isn’t that important to them, so don’t hurt yourself or think you’re a failure for not being able to meet goals with them that they themselves aren’t willing to lift a finger for.

8.  Last but not least, understand that you’re not going to please everyone, and that if you don’t realize that, you are going to cause yourself a lot of undue stress and pain that you don’t deserve.  It’s unfortunate, but a simple fact: you can’t please everyone.  It doesn’t matter how good you are.  A massage really can only be so good.  In the end, people come to see you for you.  In some way, your personalities clicked and you hit it off and they felt comfortable enough with you to schedule another appointment.  So keep your expectations realistic.  If you can turn water into wine, great, and if you can do it mail-order, so much the better.  But even then, there will be some people who wanted it yesterday, and for someone else to pick up the tab.

See you in much more than two years!


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