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Massage Today
August, 2001, Vol. 01, Issue 08

Spa Letters

By Steve Capellini, LMT

Author's Note: The Spa Letters column features news, personality profiles, trends, and plenty of professional possibilities for LMTs in the spa industry. The style is epistolary, meaning the articles are letters to a fictional massage therapist friend of the author.

Dear Lou,

As Dickens said in A Tale of Two Cities, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Now that you've decided to hang around the spa and see if you can drum up any work for the summer, you've found yourself inundated. This is a good thing, Lou! Of course, it's also difficult -- little did you realize that several of the other therapists would take advantage of the slow season for some extended vacations and work in other areas. Little did you know that your services would soon become the "talk of the spa," and that people would start requesting you after hearing about your massage skills from their neighbors in the spa dining room. And little did you know that you'd become a celebrity therapist with that write-up in a local magazine.

All of this has added up to some rather nice paychecks and some hefty gratuities, which is great, but it has also meant sore hands, a painful back, and a less-than-energetic attitude some mornings as when you head into work. This is a very important juncture for you, Lou, one that could spell the premature end of your massage career in the next year or two, or one that could propel you onward for as long as you'd care to continue. What I'm talking about here, of course, is the "B" word.


Avoiding burnout when working as a popular therapist in a busy spa, even in the off-season, is a bigger challenge than it may first appear. It's difficult to get people to sympathize with your situation when it sounds like you're complaining about too much of a good thing. And the pains and discomforts you're experiencing are usually invisible to the casual observer. You've got a sympathetic ear in me, however, and I'm sure the other therapists on staff can relate to your situation. I've known a number of therapists over the years who had to give up doing therapy altogether because their bodies couldn't handle the strain. It's really important for you to take good care of yourself now, before it may be too late.

Body mechanics is probably the most important factor to keep in mind when trying to save your body from wear and tear. You've certainly learned about body mechanics in school already, and I won't go into details here. Suffice it to say that if you don't feel a little bit like you're dancing or performing tai chi while giving a massage, it's probably hurting you. You've got to work smart if you want to keep working for a long time. Beyond that basic point, though, is a concern that many therapists bring up, one that makes them feel taken advantage of at times. It's often a sore issue, as sore as their aching lower backs after a long day at the spa.

Do Spas Overwork Us?

Recently, I received a letter from another therapist employed by a spa, just like you, and she had similar concerns. She wrote:

"I am currently working on 30 to 35 people a week at the spa. My hands hurt, I'm seeing a chiropractor more than ever, and I know that I will not last in this business even another two years at the pace I'm going. I now am forced to go out on my own to be able to continue doing what I so love to do. I would really like it if you addressed the amount of work the spas put on us for the almighty dollar."

In my opinion, it's a mistake to perceive the dollar as "almighty," although certainly it is quite powerful. It's what gets you up in the morning to go to work in the spa, and it's what gets the spa owners concerned about running a profitable business. Although it might seem otherwise to you, spas in general don't make much of a profit, and many even lose money.

While it is indeed possible that spa owners or directors may ask more of you than you feel you can reasonably perform, they are not doing this because they hate you or because they are slave drivers. They're simply trying to run a profitable business, which is what you yourself might do in their shoes, and they probably don't have the advantage of your experience to help them realize how truly taxing massage work can be. There are no labor laws that I'm aware of stating the maximum number of hours a massage therapist can be expected to work.

There are several spas that have implemented humane guidelines, though. Often, the manager of these spas is a former therapist. If your own particular spa is run by people who don't have a proper understanding of the physical duress we are put through in the treatment room, it is up to you to inform them. You should do this in the most non-confrontational way possible, for two reasons:

  1. You stand a better chance of being listened to if you interact in a civil manner
  2. You'll come across like an hysterical prima donna if you go rushing in complaining about your job when you're being paid a good deal more, hour by hour, than almost everyone else on the property. Yes, you and I know how tough this work can be, but it just plain doesn't look that tough to the casual observer. That's why the diplomatic approach works best.

As always, you've got to take responsibility for your own experience, Lou. So what can you do?

Save Yourself!

You may want to organize as many of the therapists as you can, not necessarily for the same purposes as a union, but to create a cohesive group with a single voice, so that the management of your spa can better hear what you're saying.

As a group, you can come up with some creative ways to make sure that management gets what it wants (coverage for all the hours in which clients want treatments) and the therapists get what they want (a safe manner in which to work reasonable hours while making money at the same time).

If there is no one who will organize with you, you'll to organize yourself. What I mean is, you have to present yourself as an intelligent, organized individual so that management will respect you and your opinions. Offer some sane, well-considered alternatives to the working conditions you are now experiencing. If your spa director sees you as someone who is truly concerned about the overall success of the spa, and not just your own personal happiness, I'm sure you'll receive positive response to your suggestions.

And in the meantime, you might want to take a look at some tools therapists can use to "work healthy," such as the book Save Your Hands by Lauriann Greene. For more information, check on the internet at And get creative... For example, I've heard of a man in California who has taught workshops on how to perform a massage without using your thumbs! Think outside of the box, Lou. Save yourself and your precious instrument by using creative communication with your spa superiors, and the best, most sustainable, work techniques you know of. Of course, now that you're making more money, why not use some of it to practice what you preach and purchase massage for yourself on a regular basis?

And definitely take advantage of the spa's other resource like the jacuzzi, hot paraffin wax for your hands, and more. I'll talk a little more about that next time. For now, try to enjoy your spa success. It's just the beginning!

Talk to you later,

Steve Capellini, LMT

Click here for previous articles by Steve Capellini, LMT.


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