For massage therapists, small-business safety means maintaining a clean work environment, fostering teamwork—and addressing the challenges of anxiety and depression that are up for both clients and therapists.

Eric Stephenson, LMT, is Elements Massage’s Chief Wellness Officer. He sat down with MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief, Karen Menehan, to discuss small-business safety, and what independent massage practitioners can learn from a national franchise that has rebounded from COVID-19.

Karen Menehan: Eric, what is your estimate on the number of massage therapists who have returned to work?

Eric Stephenson: I think the 80/20 rule is playing out right now—80% of massage therapists have returned back, some back in as early May, some as recently as last week. But I think that over the course of the last four months, as massage therapists started talking with each other, as we started to get some more data about performing massages with the new safety and sanitation protocols, more therapists started to go back to work.

KM: The Elements Massage brand has more than 240 locations across the U.S. and Canada. When did Elements Massage studios begin to reopen, and what sanitation procedures has the brand implemented?

ES: Studios began to open right around May 1, and as of today, all of them are essentially open. But if we rewind back to April, the brand went to work right away with an internal safety committee to sort of scrub through the entire massage experience, all the touch points that a massage therapist or someone at an Elements Massage studio is actually going to have with a client or have with another team member to make it the safest environment possible.

Eric Stephenson

KM: What is some advice you can give to massage therapists in private practice who might want to learn from a national franchise like Elements Massage?

ES: There’s a lot of things that are going to look very similar and then some things that may look different. And one of the things that’s really important, especially when you’re going through a period of stress, is to understand you’re probably in fight-flight-freeze mode, right?

I think checklists are really great, because some mornings you might come in and you might be in a really great state of mind, and you might not have a lot of fear or stress but then the next day you might come in, and in that fight-flight-freeze mode, you need to make sure you’ve got a really clear plan that you can execute on a daily basis.

Make sure you remember the things that are in place, using your checklist, and then pay attention to anything that might have changed—by checking in such agencies as the  CDC and OSHA.

KM: Eric, how do you think the pandemic will affect massage therapy in the long term?

ES: Right now, the silver lining—and what I see going into the future for massage—is that people are really going to understand the value of massage therapy services. They’re going to understand the value in managing their stress level, managing their anxiety, managing their physical pain, managing their medical condition.

The other thing, Karen, that has been really glaringly obvious was the effects of the stress, and the amount of anxiety, the amount of depressive symptoms, the amount of social isolation that clients were reporting. I mean, people had not seen anyone in weeks—literally not seen anyone in weeks.

It’s become obvious how much value is in the therapeutic relationship between a massage therapist and a client, that connection people look forward to every week, every month. People look forward to feeling the unconditional positive regard, I call it, that massage therapists exude.

I do think that it’s forced a lot of us in the massage profession to be more present, to be more empathetic, to be even more compassionate, and to be better listeners—because that’s one of the common themes I’ve seen, that people just want to be listened to and that’s so therapeutic in and of itself.

I really see that as being where massage is headed. It’s got such a solid place in people’s lives, and the simple things that make massage therapy effective should echo really deeply for us as practitioners going into the future.

KM: What might be the benefits of employment for a massage therapist, particularly right now?

ES: A lot of massage therapists have found themselves misplaced by the pandemic, whether they had to shut down their private practice temporarily or for good. I’ve talked to so many massage therapists who are thinking about doing something else. Some of them are thinking about getting out of the industry altogether.

What I tell them is, “Now’s a really good time to sort of go back to your why as a massage therapist. Why did you get into this? Why did you go to massage school? And then find a place where your why can really be expressed at the highest level, because that’s really what this opportunity has brought us.”

If you have any preconceived notions about what it’s like to work in any massage environment, including a spa or franchise, now’s a great time to investigate those and to go in and see what the reality is.

I know how isolated and lonely you can get as an independent practitioner. You can come into a massage studio and you can be surrounded by a community of other massage therapists, a community of people that are there to help, heal, contribute to their community—and a community, our social support network, as it turns out, as the research shows, is probably the single biggest predictor of our happiness.

KM: Thank you, Eric.

Each Elements Massage is independently owned and operated. ElementsMassage is a registered trademark of Elements Therapeutic Massage, LLC.

About the Author:

Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s Editor in Chief. Her recent articles include “That Was Easy: Massage Educator Benny Vaughn Describes the COVID-19 Sanitation steps That Keep His Clients & Staff Safe” and “PPE in Massage Practice: MTS (and Clients) Adapt to Thermometers, Shields & Masks.”