A MASSAGE THERAPIST GUIDE TO AVOIDING BURN OUT

The massage industry has been reported as having one of the highest rates of burn-out within the first 2 years of entering the field.  Let's look at some ways to keep yourself in tip-top shape and avoid the path to burn-out. 

Boundaries

Work up to maximum clients

There are a good number of places to work right out of school to gain experience if you choose that route BUT remember to work up to a full schedule. It’s never wise to jump into a river before knowing how fast the current is.

Massage school taught you how to massage but no school can duplicate the number of hours you will find working full time in a busy spa, chiropractor’s office, or massage chain. Too many clients too soon is a sure way to get injured. It’s similar to training for an athletic event. You want to increase the workload you ask of your body over time.

Set a boundary for the maximum number of clients you can see a day and talk with your employer about it. If they aren’t willing to listen to you, find an employer who will.

Identify your limits

Physical and emotional limits are very individual and you need to spend some time figuring out what they are.  Sometimes this is easy, like massage number 6 of the day is where you begin to feel the quality of your work decline.  Other times it’s harder to figure out what is draining you unless you begin to take notes. 

A physical boundary that might take some time to figure out is, you have to limit the number of deep tissue or sports massage sessions you do per day.  Maybe they take a toll on your body. 

Maybe two clients come to mind, who drain you emotionally so you don’t book more than 4 people on the days they are on your schedule. 

Maybe you can do 8 massages a day as long as you have a 30-minute break after the first four clients.

Respect your time off

Your time off isn’t negotiable. For self-employed therapists, if Wednesdays are your day off but a client can only come on Wednesdays, tell them sorry. Even if you don’t mind coming in for one client and you need the money, your body needs the time off.

For employed massage therapists, covering another therapist’s shift because they called in sick is good teamwork but only if you are short on your schedule that week. Don’t add shifts to your days off after working a full week.

Adding an extra client here and there can lead to injury when your body is supposed to be resting. Work hard, rest hard.

Set a boundary for time off and stick to it most of the time if not all the time.

Body Mechanics

Body mechanics could be the greatest asset a massage therapist has.  It is wholly worth the time and effort to make sure you possess the right skills in this area.  Not only will you prolong your career, but you will better serve your clients as well.

Refresh body mechanics regularly

Massage schools devote different amounts of time in their curriculum to teaching body mechanics.  This area is one of the most important parts of your massage training and making every effort to be as competent as possible is never time wasted. 

You know if you have a good foundation in body mechanics or if your school only brushed the service.  Unfortunately, this area is not regulated from school to school but you can help yourself by finding courses to make you better.   

Whether you need to brush up on basics every couple of years or need someone to watch you work and give you feedback, spend the time refreshing your body mechanics each year.

Often, massage therapists wait until something is hurting to address body mechanics.  A better approach is to make sure you haven’t picked up any bad habits before the pain starts. 

Pieces of the puzzle

Many moving pieces need to fall into place to create good body mechanics.  Table height is a place to start, then stance, weight shift, wrist angle, hand tension, thumb use, and a variety of tools all make the body mechanics puzzle complete.

The height of the table should set you up for success rather than be an obstacle in your way.  One session at the wrong table height can take your body from fatigue to injury quickly. 

A general rule is having your loose fist just brush the top of the table when standing next to it with a hanging arm.

There are two main stance options from which all massage strokes come.  The horse stance or split stance, and the bow stance or archer’s stance, which is an asymmetric stance.  Knowing when to use which and weight shifting as you work are the next pieces of the puzzle to building good body mechanics. 

Read more about correct body mechanics here.

The angle at which you use your wrist as you go about your work can make or break your hands.  Hand tension while massaging also should be avoided at all times. 

Hands and thumbs should be used sparingly and varying your tools is a goal to strive for in saving your hands.  Elbows, forearms, knuckles, fists, the heel of the hand are all possible tools to rotate through.  See if you can use tools other than your hands 50% of the massage.  This is possible, get creative.  

Awareness is the best prevention

You may tell your clients to be aware of their posture while working their desk job and the same goes for you while massaging.  Awareness is the best place to start when revamping your body mechanics. 

Check in with your body periodically throughout each massage you give.  Go through this checklist mentally to bring awareness to areas you can fix.

  • Is the tool you are using relaxed?
  • Are you lined up with your work?
  • Are you behind your work vs. on top of it?
  • Do you feel tension in your hand? Is there another tool you can substitute?
  • Are you using your weight shift?
  • Did you take the time to adjust your table height?
  • Are you getting strength from your legs rather than muscling the stroke with your arms?
  • Are you breathing?

As you become more aware you will be able to fix these problems immediately during the session.  It takes practice but investing in your health is the best investment you could make.

Even therapists with great body mechanics need an adjustment from time to time.  Bad habits become present when schedules are overly filled or when the body is fatigued.

Exercise

Were you told to exercise in massage school?  We know we are supposed to do it but we don’t always know why, other than it’s good for you.  Well, I’m here to say there are specific reasons you as a massage therapist should have exercise in your life.  It will make you more money.  Just keep reading.

As a massage therapist, you need your body to do your work.  You need a healthy body to work 10 massages a week and let’s face it, many who are massaging full time are doing 25-30 sessions a week.  If you exercise your body can do the 25-30 sessions much easier than the therapist who doesn’t exercise.

Cardiovascular exercise as well as weight training and stretching are the three areas that will have your body in top shape to make the money you want.

Cardiovascular exercise

Think of cardio as giving you the stamina to put in the long days of massage.  Choose types of exercise that raise your heart rate and keep it there for over 30 minutes.  Fast walking, jogging, and riding a bike are all easy types of cardiovascular exercise.  Don’t forget things like jumping rope, swimming laps, jumping on a trampoline also count as cardio.   

A stronger heart pumps blood more efficiently which means it’s easy to massage while exerting energy during an, especially taxing session.  You know the ones I’m talking about.  Those muscle dense athletes or those modalities that take more energy than others.

Another way to get cardio in when you’re short on time is high-intensity interval training (HIIT).  These workouts are designed to steeply increase your heart rate for a short time, then let the heart rate lower, then get it way back up again.  The advantage is getting the workout done in 10-15 minutes.  Plus pushing the heart harder strengthens it faster.

Weight training

Men and women alike need strength to be a massage therapist.  Basic strength to support the joints of the hands, arms, and core strength to support the back.  What are the main areas you hear massage therapists complain about?  Hands and back, with thumbs and neck an extension of those. 

I believe massage-related injuries would decrease if therapists lifted weights regularly.  Not a lot of weight, but enough to support the joints we use most during a massage.  This includes upper body strength to support our tools, core strength to support our movements and balance around the table, and back strength to hold our posture. 

Weight training can include exercises using your body weight only like, push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, and air squats.  Or you might prefer to use free weights and pick push/pull exercises for all major muscle groups.  If free weights like dumbbells intimidate you, try machines with pictures to show the right way to use them.      

Read the best exercises for massage therapists to stay out of pain here.

Three days a week is enough to keep you massaging pain-free with strength making your job easier.  Get a personal trainer or find workouts online for your level of fitness and be sure to strengthen all major muscle groups.

Stretching

Stretching may not seem as important for a massage therapist but it is definitely a piece of the puzzle when needing your body to hold up to the long work days. 

Tight hamstrings result in a tight low back.  Tight pectoral muscles result in rounded posture.  Tight flexors of the forearms leave hands aching. 

A basic daily stretching routine will leave you ready for your day of massage and may prevent overuse injuries like tendonitis. 

Stretching large muscle groups like the hamstrings, pecs, back, hip flexors, calves, forearms, and shoulders can be done in as little as 5 minutes.  Stretching in between clients is a smart way to gain a quick energy boost in addition to loosening tight areas.       

If your body is done after 10 massages and mine can go for 20, who makes more money?  An exercise routine including cardio, weight training, and stretching is all it takes.  And besides being in the best shape of your life, you can massage as long as you want, making the money you need to live your best life. 

Healthy eating

You are what you eat.  We’ve all heard this saying.  Eating junk makes you feel like junk.  When you aren’t feeling your best, you can’t do your best work for clients.  Proper food and hydration can solve a host of body unease problems and raise your energy levels to boot. 

Eating with purpose

How many times have you put something in your mouth because it was available, even though you weren’t really hungry? What about grabbing food on the go, and settling for lower quality food?  We’re all guilty of this.  The goal of healthy eating is to have awareness and choose foods for a purpose.  

Food has a purpose.  Each food item reacts differently with our body.  If you really listen, your body will tell you what it likes and what it doesn’t.  An obvious example is a negative reaction if you are lactose intolerant.  The less obvious example is food that leaves you feeling sluggish or bloated.  Some of these reactions are very subtle and journaling may help figure out which food was causing the symptom. 

If we focus on eating for energy, it becomes easier to make good choices around what we put in our mouths.  Protein and fat help you feel full longer and carbohydrates are a necessary energy source for quick and sustainable energy. 

Hydration

Drinking enough water is crucial to feeling your best.  How many times do you hear this?  You probably tell your clients to do this and you may or may not be good at it yourself. 

Our body needs water and works optimally when we are hydrated.  Small aches and even headaches can vanish when properly hydrated. 

Aim to drink 72 ounces of water daily.  When you have clients all day this can be hard.  Take water into the treatment room with you and drink during the session.  Drink between sessions and as often as you can to feel your best. 

Find out how to drink more water here.   

Conclusion

Avoiding burnout as a massage therapist entails many areas.  New therapists may have a harder time setting boundaries but haven’t created bad body mechanic habits yet, while veteran massage therapists probably have figured out their boundaries but are more at risk for poor body mechanics.

Exercise and eating well are continually important for massage therapists to have in their routine for a long career. There is early proof that strength training reduces massage therapists' work-related injuries.  This alone can allow many years working in this field.

Take care of your body always, but especially if you rely on it for your livelihood. 

Until next time,

Be Fit, Be strong and do everything in your power to avoid burnout.

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