Owning an independent practice is the goal of many massage therapists. Should it be? While doing so might be the best fit for some people, massage therapist jobs provide another way to perform hands-on work in a chosen specialty without the challenges that come with running a business.
We spoke with three massage therapists who have owned practices and who now work as employees, to learn what keeps them enthused about their career—and what advice they have for any massage therapist considering employment.
Recreating Her Life
Lori Hodo’s story of many practice locales is a familiar one in the massage field. After starting out as an independent practitioner in 1995, she moved from one type of location to another: hair salons, a private office, a health food store, and then for the past 13 years in a session room, with its own entrance and bathroom, on her property.
Then, in early 2022, Hodo was receiving physical therapy on her shoulder at a local physical therapy clinic, in Frankenmuth, Michigan. She and the physical therapist “just really clicked,” she says, and by the end of the appointment had both decided that Hodo would talk to the CEO about coming to work at the clinic. (Editor’s note: this interview with Hodo took place while she was still employed at the clinic. She has since parted ways with this place of employment.)
In March, the company hired Hodo as its first massage therapist. Management recently asked her to head up its training program for the massage therapists that will be hired at its other clinics throughout the state. (The company also has a COO, purchasing agent, marketing department and front-desk staff.)
“It’s been really good and excellent,” Hodo says of her employment. “I’m really trying to recreate my life to have as little stress as possible. I came to realize that there was a lot of background stress to owning my own business because I had to do everything—make the appointments, shovel the snow, do the laundry and do the massages.”
Hodo works on a team comprising three physical therapists and an occupational therapist. Having been an Air Force medic for five years and then a nurse for 20 years while getting into massage, she has the professional experience needed to collaborate on client cases.
Hodo’s compensation is $55 per massage, $27.50 per hour for the work she is doing to create the company’s massage department, and $15 per hour for basic administrative work. She also gets health insurance and is accruing paid time off.
This is her advice to a massage therapist thinking about employment: Reach out to businesses you might want to work with and talk to people there to see if it could be a good fit for you or not. Know what your limits are, such as the number of massages you are willing to do in a day. Communicate your needs to any potential employer—and if they aren’t willing to meet your needs, move on. Be open to opportunities you might not have been expecting.
“Maybe it isn’t even somebody that’s posting a job opening, which is what happened with me,” Hodo says. “They weren’t even thinking about it, and neither was I. It just kind of came up.”
Peace of Mind
When Kelly Bowers ran a massage practice, she thought about business tasks all the time. “It was always going at least in the back of my mind. I could be out for dinner with my husband, but some part of my brain was always dedicated to thinking about business. I couldn’t turn it off,” she says.
When this article was written in late 2022, Bowers, 62, was an employee at The Medical Massage Clinic of Durham, in North Carolina. As an employee, she no longer had those constant energy-sapping, running-a-business thoughts, and says there are many additional benefits to employment.
“One, I didn’t have do quarterly taxes,” she says. “I didn’t have to do any bookkeeping. I didn’t have to do any laundry. I don’t have to do any marketing—so there’s all this energy I’m wasn’t expending running a private practice.”
Bowers had been in independent massage practice for 17 years, work that spanned corporate massage, private practice and independent contracting, when she saw an ad for a massage therapist on social media five years ago. She assumed the job was for an independent contractor, but the interviewer told her the business was looking to hire an employee.
She recalls thinking, “‘OK, I just don’t want to run my own practice’”—and decided to make the leap. She describes her [former] work situation … as “the sweetest deal.”
Why? For several reasons. First, the work—lymphatic drainage, scar massage and other medical-focused massage work—was the skill set she was most interested in. Bowers also enjoyed freedom from the business tasks that can be such a large part of running a massage practice. Moreover, being part of a team of massage therapists is a great fit for her personality; in fact, when she looks back on her years running a practice, she realizes how lonely she sometimes felt.
“The isolation of private practice is what generally drove me into doing corporate massage or an independent contracting gig, because the isolation really wore on me,” Bowers says. “I’m an introvert—but having nobody to talk to about what was going on … [compared to now working with] other massage therapists, I can walk into the breakroom and go, ‘OK, I have to tell you what just happened,’ and they completely understand.”
“I loved being part of a team,” says Bowers. “I loved working with other therapists.”
Bowers’ compensation was 50% of each massage session plus gratuities.
She says that for the massage therapist thinking of becoming an employee, determining what employment income would look like means factoring in not only what you will be paid per hour or per massage, but also subtracting all the expenses that come with running practice—rent, laundry, supplies and marketing among them.
An employer needs to be able to handle those basic business tasks along with such big-picture elements as developing and maintaining a referral network, says Bowers, to ensure practice success and a full schedule for employees–making it crucial that the massage therapist finds out as best they can if a potential employer is a competent business owner.
“You need to interview them carefully, because, first of all, you’re looking for somebody who actually knows how to run a business,” she says. You should not necessarily look for a massage-practice owner who has worked as a massage therapist, Bowers adds, because not everyone can transition from independent practice to being a successful employer.
The questions you need to ask a potential employer, Bowers says, include: Are you going to keep my schedule full? Are you going to pay me on time? Are you going to bring me the kind of clients I want to work with? Will you be flexible in scheduling when I need time off? Do you invest in the equipment I need to provide high-quality sessions?
“Do they have business skills, and the way they define their practice and want to grow it, does that jibe with what you want professionally?” she adds. “You need to know, yourself, what it is you want out of the job, and what kind of work you want to do.”
Soon after this article was written and after half a decade with her employer, Bowers retired from hands-on massage to focus on her education company, Healing Arts Biz Academy, through which she trains health care practitioners business and marketing skills. (In her role as an educator, Bowers writes for this publication. Visit massagemag.com and search for Bowers to read her many business-development articles.)
Try Employment First
Roger Buttrick has been employed as a massage therapist for 15-plus years. He used to work for a large spa franchise, but says the owner was not committed to keeping up with marketing trends or investing in the equipment that would help employees provide the best massage possible. His current employer is a medical massage practice that offers an engaging and professional environment, Buttrick says.
His best advice for a new massage graduate? Jump into employment to see if it is a good fit for you. If not, you can always strike out as a small-business person and take on the responsibilities of owning a massage practice.
“Be an employee first for at least a year or two, to see if you’re cut out for this position, and see whether you like working with people,” he says. “Then you can decide whether you want to go out by yourself.”
After learning how to handle a full client schedule at his first job, he says, he struck out on his own. Then he returned to employment while still running his independent practice part-time.
Buttrick’s compensation is 50% of each massage plus gratuities. He loves not having to handle his own taxes. He is also paid an hourly wage for employee meetings and his employer pays 50% of the cost of continuing education.
Having four massage-therapist co-workers at his job, which is located in a gym, gives Buttrick people to talk to, vent with and bounce ideas off. In addition, he appreciates that his boss handles all the marketing. “[She] can retain people,” he says. “She’s on top of social media. It’s a breath of fresh air to watch her.” His current employer is a welcome contrast to the spa owner he used to work for, says Buttrick. “She will ask you each month if you need any supplies, or tools. She is not afraid to spend money.”
That’s something, Buttrick says, a massage therapist should ask about in an interview: How is the practice marketed? How is it maintained? How are clients retained?
“It’s all those little things that add up that make a difference,” he says.
About the Author
Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor-in-chief–print and digital. Her articles for this publication include “Massage Therapist Jobs: The Employed Practitioner,” published in the Sept. 2022 issue of MASSAGE Magazine, a first-place winner of a 2023 FOLIO: Eddie Award for magazine editorial excellence, full issue; and “This is How Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Practices Make Business Better,” published in in the August 2021 issue of MASSAGE Magazine, a first-place winner of a 2022 FOLIO: Eddie Award for editorial excellence, full issue.