picture of six massage employers
picture of six massage employers

Staying Staffed: The Employee Benefits That Are Attracting and Retaining Massage Therapists

Staying Staffed: The Employee Benefits That Are Attracting and Retaining Massage Therapists

Due to the ongoing COVID crisis and the economic fallout of the pandemic over the past two years, the U.S. economy and job-market recovery continue to struggle. The ongoing threat of COVID—including a record-setting spike in cases in January—forced both employers and employees to rethink how they do business. And the Great Resignation saw millions of people ditch their more traditional corporate jobs in favor of the gig economy, freelancing, and work-from-home opportunities. Some people not only left their jobs—they abandoned their industry entirely and completely switched careers.

The result? Businesses continue to scramble to fill open positions. In fact, most every industry finds itself navigating a new employment environment, where employers struggle to close the gap in vacancies, employees weigh their options, and job-seekers lean into their in-demand leverage. 

As arguably the hardest hit industry, hospitality particularly feels the pinch in this very competitive job market—with the massage profession no exception. According to research conducted by the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA), the start of the pandemic had more than three-quarters (86 percent) of massage therapists experiencing work stoppages. By September 2021, however, over 90 percent indicated they were back at work, and most recently that number climbed to 96 percent, with clients seen on average also getting close to pre-COVID numbers.

“We’re way under fully staffed,” says Nathan Nordstrom, Director of Massage Therapy Training at Hand and Stone, which has 530 locations nationwide. “We’re averaging 13 massage therapists per spa, which is significantly under, especially for spas with 12 to15 rooms.” 

Eric Stephenson, Chief Wellness Officer with Elements Massage, says staffing levels depend on the region, as Elements has more than 250 studios nationwide. “With franchises being independently operated and owned, some are fully staffed and some are understaffed,” he says. “Recruitment and retention are problems across the industry.”

On the franchisee level, Suzanne Lord Rossi, owner of Elements Massage in Bannockburn, IL, says her location is currently understaffed. “We could increase our staffing by 40 to 50 percent in the next year,” she says. 

And Shawn Haycock, co-founder of Massage Envy, points out that high consumer demand for massage factors into the increased need for more massage therapists. “I don’t think we’ve ever been fully staffed,” he explains. “It’s been a little tougher to staff massage therapists over the last five or six years, but COVID definitely played into it.” 

Nordstrom says one of the big issues with the pandemic and post-recovery is that more franchise owners have been asking themselves: “How do I entice people to come work for me?” Previously, the ability to reliably deliver clients was one of the biggest benefits of the franchise system. Franchise owners handling the business of marketing and advertising for massage therapists new to the profession and sole practitioners who may need a little help rounding out their client load was appealing. “Early on, we could say, ‘If you have your own practice and you’re not able to get enough clients, come work at a franchise, and we’ll have all the clients available for you. We’ll make sure your book is full.’ That was a really good benefit,” says Nordstrom. “Now, that’s not the end all, be all. Massage therapists are wanting more, understandably.”

Of course, with massage franchises being independently owned and operated, franchise owners are who determine the compensation and benefits offered to employees. But, in general, when it comes to retaining current massage therapists and recruiting new ones, what employee benefits are resonating right now?

Money Talks

Now, more than ever, the big money question—“How much do you pay?”—is top of mind for massage therapists, and with a struggling economy and soaring inflation, this makes sense.

“Because so many massage therapists are part-time, increased pay rates have still been the No. 1 thing,” says Rossi. “We’ve done that and had to increase rates beyond where we’ve been able to increase prices.”

Haycock says, “[Over the years], we worked out the pay side to where people can actually make a living doing massage and not have to have a second and third job to supplement their income.”

Of course, businesses must keep a pulse on what the market is paying. “To keep your people, you need to make sure you’re staying competitive in pay, and that’s an ever-changing target,” cautions Kristen Pechacek, CFE, Chief Growth Officer at Massage Luxe International, which has 70 locations throughout the U.S.

Besides hourly compensation, bonuses factor in, too.

“We offer incentive pay for being a full-time massage therapist, as well as sign-on bonuses and referral bonuses for current employees,” says Danielle Nighelli, Director of Human Resources at Mirbeau Hospitality Services, a hotel/resort spa with four locations in Massachusetts and New York.

“Typically, we’re seeing our franchisees explore sign-on bonuses, increased pay related to competitors in their area, and opportunities to build on their income with regular bonuses, whether they’re referred or requested, based on their performance in the spa,” explains Pechacek. 

While money always ranks high in attracting and keeping employees, other benefits really do make a difference in where massage therapists want to work.  

Work Culture Plays a Pivotal Role

Building a healthy team culture is a recurring theme among those who want to retain employees. Culture encompasses the big things—like feeling appreciated, valued, and respected—as well as the little things, like team activities, social events, and snacks. 

“We aim to encourage our franchisees to build a culture where massage therapists are happy and proud to be at,” says Pechacek. “Our franchisees hire for character, and people like to work at Massage Luxe because of the way they’re trained and treated.”

Rossi notes that the foundation of a positive culture starts with small things, like recognizing successes, offering a nice break room, celebrating good reviews, and hosting fun activities. “Sometimes the manager will bring in a meal to share, provide snacks or coffee, try to make staff meetings fun, decorate for holidays, plan social activities, and help organize a team potluck,” she says.

Stephenson points out that compensation is important, but it doesn’t really keep people on a team as much as cultivating a culture of trust, safety, and inclusion. “Increased compensation, health insurance, free massage, etc., are important. But what we really find is the culture of a studio keeps massage therapists,” he explains. “The benefits often get looked at as tangible things, but if the culture is not where they want to work—such as safety, being part of a team, connecting to team members and clients—all those other benefits don’t go a long way.”

“We have franchisees doing a really great job of making sure employees understand what they’re working towards in that business in order to get some buy-in into how that business is performing,” notes Pechacek. “Franchisees that do goal setting with the team, and share the numbers that are driving the business, have employees who strive to hit those numbers.” 

Some Benefits Make the Job Easier

While compensation and workplace culture rank high, intangible benefits count, too. For instance, owning a practice requires an incredible amount of time, energy, money, and resources. So, the appeal of working at a franchise, spa, or clinic still carries some weight. In this environment, massage therapists don’t have to do their own marketing or worry about administrative tasks, and they get to work side-by-side with peers who can help and mentor them. 

More often, though, it boils down to practicalities. Massage therapists want to receive benefits that make it easier (and less expensive) to do their job. “Sometimes that’s part of the equation—to help a self-employed massage therapist by taking care of the costs associated with being one, including pay rate and benefits like liability insurance and continuing education credits,” Rossi points out. 

Common benefits that resonate with massage therapists right now include the following:

  • Liability insurance. “We actually have a negotiated partnership with Massage Liability Insurance Group, offering preferred pricing,” Pechacek says. “Some of our owners are choosing to pay for this for their employees.” Similarly, Rossi says, “I do know that one of the big benefits of AMTA or ABMP [Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals] is the reasonable rates on pro liability insurance. We actually pay for massage therapists’ liability insurance after a certain amount of time at the studio.”
  • Health insurance. “We’ve always been a studio that offered strong benefits, including paid time off and non-traditional health care. Now, we’re offering a traditional health care insurance plan,” says Rossi.
  • Continuing education. Some massage establishments offer free access to an education platform that allows employees to take continuing education units (CEUs), while others pay for outside classes or brings in instructors. “Elements Massage just rolled out our Career Advancement Program nationwide,” explains Stephenson. “Massage therapists were looking for a meaningful way to develop and advance their career. We said, ‘how can we be meaningful and innovative, not just in recruiting, but retaining them, and showing them career progression and compensation?’”

Some massage establishments provide a mix of these benefits in some form already. 

For instance, according to Nighelli, “We offer competitive wages (some licensed massage therapists will make up to 90k annually), paid time off, a 401k match, medical, dental, vision and life insurance, paid cancellations, discounts for rooms at our hotel, 50 percent off treatments for them and a guest, paid holidays, time-and-a-half if called in to cover a last-minute shift, incentive pay for full-time status and we cover the cost of their AMTA membership.”

Others are taking a more innovative approach. Rather than cobbling together a mixed offering of discounts, programs, and educational offerings on their own, they’re turning to a more turnkey solution. How? By providing professional memberships to associations (as Mirbeau and some local franchisees already do) to offer a slew of benefits that appeal to massage therapists.

For instance, in January, Massage Envy announced an agreement with AMTA where massage therapists employed at its franchised locations will be provided an annual AMTA membership at no cost to them, with a benefits package that includes liability insurance, free and discounted continuing education, industry research and publications, networking opportunities, professional resources, and more. That’s a big plus when trying to attract a prospective employee to come aboard and retain current team members.  

As Haycock explains, Massage Envy recently collaborated with AMTA, and all the massage therapists working at its individual franchises across the nation now have a no-cost membership with AMTA. “It’s a 100 percent AMTA membership, and there are a lot of benefits that come with that,” notes Haycock. “I think that’s a huge piece [of a benefits package].” Before the corporate agreement, Haycock notes that a lot of franchisees were paying for the membership for their employees because they saw the benefit of the membership. “I’ve been a big fan of AMTA for many years, as they do a lot for our industry,” he says. “We wanted to give back and support AMTA and provide all of our franchisee massage therapists with that career organization and the benefits they bring.”

Haycock doesn’t know if other franchises have any relationships with AMTA, but says, “I’d highly encourage them to do this. It’s better for the industry that everybody has that association with other companies within the industry. And when you provide continuing education for massage therapists, it raises the bar for the entire industry, so I think it’s a good thing.”

The bottom line? Get creative when looking to attract and retain massage therapists. While compensation might be the largest draw, offering a comprehensive package that includes both tangible and intangible benefits goes a long way in hiring and keeping top talent.

Stephenson says, “The good owners who keep employees engaged, focused on their mission, and compensated in many ways, tend to maintain employees and team members.” 

Pechacek echoes that sentiment. “Make sure your people are happy, have a strong leader in your spa who’s staying attentive to what massage therapists want, be flexible in scheduling, and understand life happens,” she says. “It’s those fundamentals that sometimes get missed that we have to make sure we continuing to beat the drum on.”