Two hands cup a drawing of Planet Earth, which is wearing a medical mask.

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a significant impact on the therapeutic massage profession while continuing its general world influence.

From shutdowns to reopenings and perhaps back to shutdowns, education to practice, clinician to student, provider to client/patient, and researcher to participant, COVID-19 has disrupted life, schedules, livelihoods and identities.

Many of us are functioning in survival mode as we balance the many contexts of our lives, with our mental health and emotional well-being certainly affected.

Read the special 5-part series, “Voices of COVID-19: Massage Therapists Share Stories of Challenge & Hope.”

Forces Beyond Our Control

A troubling situation facing massage therapists right now deals with the concept of moral distress, which is essentially the emotional dilemma that occurs when someone cannot do what they believe is right due to external or other forces beyond their control.

There are many situations that can bring about moral distress for massage therapists.

The most obvious and likely most universal moral distress situation example right now is the knowledge that massage therapy would bring benefit and comfort to so many, but the very nature of providing that comfort or benefit facilitation is not allowed, is dangerous or cannot be delivered in a safe way.

This moral distress example can easily translate to examples involving client/patient access, therapist livelihood and massage education. Many massage professionals and leaders are working through the puzzles that have emerged from this dilemma to get massage back to patients, clients and students. In the meantime, a research opportunity has presented itself that is unique and timely.

Your Pandemic Experiences

Researchers from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville, Prisma Health, Clemson University, Appalachian Regional Health Center, and Indiana University (IUPUI) are conducting an ongoing survey designed to gather information about the experiences of all health care providers and professionals during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conceptualization for Project COPE began in late-March. By mid-April the first participants were enrolled.

Massage therapists are of particular interest to the research team because two team members, Ann Blair Kennedy, DrPH, and Niki Munk, PhD, LMT (this article’s author), are both former massage clinicians and educators turned full-time academic researchers with a profound interest in the sustainability and elevation of the therapeutic massage field.

All massage therapists are invited to participate in Project COPE, and doing so is easy. Project COPE has been reviewed and approved by the University of South Carolina institutional review board (IRB) for research ethics, has a website at, and has a presence on various social media platforms including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Project COPE participants are asked to complete an online survey and then upload a short, two- to five-minute video or voice recording describing their care provider-related experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Once participants have completed the short survey, they are invited to continue with the study to further chronicle their experiences over time.

A Unique Opportunity

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity to collect data in real time regarding the wide-ranging effects that current extraordinary circumstances have on practitioners.

While past studies have examined the effects of disaster-related moral distress on first responders and health care workers following such events as the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina, they have all been retrospective in nature. Project COPE provides researchers with the unprecedented possibility to gather data during the course of events as they unfold. Care providers, including massage therapists, around the world are being invited to participate.

The multidisciplinary, international Project COPE seeks to gather qualitative and quantitative survey data from any professional working in a caring capacity, including: both essential and non-essential categories of providers including physicians, nurses, allied health, complementary and integrative medicine practitioners, those in dentistry, mental health and any students in these fields.

Data collection is being conducted in English only, so while health care practitioners worldwide are encouraged to participate, they must be able to communicate in English.

The primary research aim is to explore and describe the experiences of those within health care fields particularly in relation to wellness and moral distress during various stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because data is being collected from around the world and across multiple disciplines, researchers will have many opportunities for secondary analyses, including those that compare data with public information about COVID-19 status and policies pertaining to specific regions and professions.  

The world for all health care-related professions will not be the same following the COVID-19 pandemic — and Project COPE is an opportunity to chronicle these experiences for the massage field among other caring professions. Please consider visiting and sharing Project COPE resources and participating in this important work.

About the Author:

Niki Munk, PhD, LMT, is an associate professor of health sciences in Indiana University’s School of Health and Human Sciences, a non-practicing Kentucky-licensed massage therapist, and a member of the Academic Collaboration for Academic Health research work group. She wrote this article on behalf of the Massage Therapy Foundation.