The New Coffee Break


Marilyn Kier knew the stresses of the workplace. As a business consultant for 15 years, she knew the aches in the fingers, the tightness in the shoulders, the pain in the neck. She knew she needed to bring wellness to the workplace.

She joined the chamber of commerce in Northbrook, Illinois, with the idea of sitting chamber members down and showing them what they'd been missing.

"I went there with my massage chair, and everybody looked at me like, 'Is she serious?'" Kier says. You bet she was. She still is. About 10 years later, Kier maintains a core group of about 12 companies, and others seasonally, with which she maintains relationships in the art and income of workplace- or corporate- massage.

"I had no trouble getting into any corporation from large companies like Motorola to smaller privately owned companies," Kier says. No formal studies have been done on trends, but some say corporate massage has leveled off since its 1980s mainstream introduction by TouchPro Institute founder David Palmer, known by some as the father of contemporary chair massage.

Others say it continues to boom. They cite an increasing number of therapists offering workplace massage and an increasing number of companies welcoming it with open and aching arms. "There's so much potential business out there," says Denver therapist Julie Wallace. "I get very excited when I see it becoming accepted as a mainstream idea as a wellness practice."

Says therapist Linda Dumbrigue of Novi, Michigan: "I think there is a huge untapped market, and that's why it's an interest to me." Dumbrigue is among the therapists looking for ways to tap into it. Therapists who have had success securing relationships with companies say it usually comes down to a lot of hard work, homework and creativity-and sometimes, a little luck.

Gary Jones of Austin, Texas, says he once was doing chair massage at a public event-and the CEO of a local company sat down in his chair. "She said, 'Can you come to my company?' I happened to be in the right place at the right time."

Hard work and Homework

Kier sent out flyers to all members of the Northbrook, Illinois Chamber of Commerce. She also joined a local group called the Worksite Wellness Council of Illinois, in which businesses would vie for an annual wellness award. The businesses would attend meetings on wellness in the workplace-and Kier made sure she attended as well. Before she knew it, Kier was bidding on contracts for seated massage.

"I'd determine what their goals and needs were, and I would come back with a proposal on how I could help them achieve that," Kier says.

Jason Miller of Enfield, Connecticut, and his partner, Kevin Zorda, spent $1,500 on newspaper ads trying to attract corporate interest to chair massage. They didn't get one call back. They knew they had to try something different. That's when they started thinking outside the box-literally.

They got a four-inch-by-four-inch box. They decorated each side with either words or illustrations that trumpeted their service. One side had an illustration of somebody receiving a chair massage. Another side showed a testimonial from a previous client. Another side included research on employee and company benefits. The top featured just four words: Think outside the box.

"It helped us stand out from the crowd," Miller says. "And it showed a little uniqueness. We'd get a call: 'That's kind of funny. You think outside the box.'"

They'd not only get a call, Miller says. They'd get a client. Miller and other massage therapists-who have been successful in workplace massage-say they can't emphasize enough the importance of the planning and work that go into securing and maintaining corporate accounts. They say therapists should be aware of the time involved in each account, some of which can take up to a half a day or a full day of work, including travel and setting up. That doesn't include communication and coordination leading up to each corporate visit and administrative duties such as billing and collections.

Successful therapists also point out that expanding into corporate massage can mean hiring and training additional therapists.

"You have to decide whether you want to be the business owner or the massage therapist," Kier says. Kier, owner of Wellness At Work, says she wants to remain a therapist. She says she scaled back on her corporate business, which "kind of runs itself now" on the strength of independent contractors whom she trained. "I personally am focusing on orthopedic massage and pain management," she says.

Kier says her background as a corporate consultant helped her to understand "all the stresses that might occur" within the workplace. Her company website (www.wellnessatwork.net) cleverly reads: "Kier, a nationally certified massage therapist who has a BA in psychology, spent 15 years working in employee benefits consulting before she switched gears and became an employee benefit."

But if a business background is helpful, a business plan is essential. Therapists should know the market, the time and money involved in winning a share of it, the resources involved in maintaining it, and the financial results therein. Kier says she uses the same business plan she wrote in massage school-a 60-page paper that features her ethics, policies, principles, operations and more. Once their financial plans are in order, therapists are ready to go after a piece of this vast and seemingly growing corporate pie.

Going for It

Therapists agree on the need for an "inside advocate," somebody inside the company who sees a need for company-wide massage therapy. Wallace, the Denver therapist, says she introduces herself to companies at which she knows somebody, so her foot is in the door and the ice is broken. She sometimes offers her contact a free 20-minute massage as another ice-breaker.

Miller says he and Zorda have their own method: they go straight to the top. "We seek the head honcho of the company," he says. Firstly, he says, it saves time by eliminating red tape. Secondly, it helps the therapist to better educate the company on corporate chair massage. "We found that many of the CEOs were war veterans and were used to the type of massage they got overseas," Miller says. As a result, he says, many corporate executives continue to perceive massage only as "dim lighting, soft music, on a table, sedated." His company, Connecticut Chair Massage, had to break the "corporate massage myth," he says. "We had to educate the clients." Massage schools are doing their part, too. Zorda, director of the massage therapy program at the Windsor, Connecticut, campus at the Branford Hall Career Institute, says his program offers a 30-hour course that focuses exclusively on seated massage. The course covers marketing, networking, price-setting and more.

"We often tell [students] that there's networking groups that they can get involved with," says Zorda, also a massage therapy evaluator for the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. "We're close to Hartford, and we have a lot of insurance companies and a lot of banks," he says. Therefore, they emphasize network groups that might be connected to those types of industries.

Selling It

Once inside the company door, Denver's Wallace produces a one-page sheet that explains what employees can get from her 20-minute chair massage, that employees keep their clothes on and that they won't be coated with oil or lotion, since neither are used. More importantly, Miller says, therapists must emphasize to prospective clients the ultimate advantage of workplace massage. "They don't care about how it's going to increase blood flow," Miller says. "They care how it's going to improve the bottom line, how it's going to enhance productivity."

Miller says he makes sure he's familiar with studies on workplace massage, such as those done by the University of Miami's Touch Research Institute, which show a correlation between massage, alertness and lower anxiety. "We show them studies," Miller says. "There's just limited research out there on workplace massage," he adds.

Kier points out, though, that much more is being written about massage in general-that more doctors are prescribing it, that people are using it not only as a luxury but to manage pain and that more insurance companies are beginning to pay for hour-long massages. Therapists who arm themselves with such articles can enhance their sales pitch. Kier says she is quick to speak at organizations about the benefits of massage.

She once was asked to be a massage spokeswoman of sorts at a Northwestern University conference on holistic health. "The more you can align yourself with other professionals who look at massage as a credible health benefit," she says, "the more I think that credibility and professionalism will generate corporate arrangements."

Pricing It

Therapists say they use a $1-per minute rule of thumb as a basis for corporate deals. Jones says he uses a tiered pricing system by which he charges $60 per hour if he's providing massages at the company for 3½ hours or more. If he's at the company for fewer than 3½ hours, he charges $70 per hour. "I charge a higher rate for less time," Jones says. "It's expensive getting out there and setting up." He requests a gratuity on one-time arrangements. "I've found that whenever I've charged it, people don't balk," he says. He waives the gratuity as an incentive to establish a regular relationship with the company.

Company arrangements vary from once or twice a week, to once a month to once a year, to whenever the mood and the money strike the company. Sometimes the employees pay for the massages; sometimes the company pays for them, and some-times the employees and company share the costs.

Of 18 corporate accounts maintained by his company, Miller says, 11 are paid entirely by employees, two are paid entirely by the companies and five are partially paid for by the companies. When employees are paying for all or part of the massages, therapists say, it's a good idea to have the employees pay in advance. The therapists thereby know they have a commitment and know how many therapists to send to the job. When the company pays all the costs, the therapist generally knows the frequency of company-wide sessions (once a week, once a month, etc.). In such cases, some therapists ask the company to let them know ahead of time how much time will be needed on the coming visit, and they bill the company in advance.

Doing It

As with most chair massage sessions, workplace-massage sessions generally last 15 to 20 minutes, focusing on the neck, head, back, shoulders, arms, hands and fingers. Most therapists prefer to customize each session, as if to say to the employee: "I care about you, not just your company." Many ask the client whether they have any areas that need special attention. They ask new clients about health history, recent injuries and whether they've had chair massage.

Kier says she trains her independent contractors to focus on individual needs. "Our goal is to really customize the on-site massage on what each employee needs on any given day that we're there," she says. "It's not just a routine. These are skilled therapists who can ask questions and tailor the session accordingly."

"We encourage all of our staff to individualize each session," Miller says. "If you're doing the same routine over and over again, you're really not helping anyone." Jones says his teacher required all of his therapists to execute at least a variation of the same chair-massage routine, adapted from an Eastern style of therapy called shiatsu that emphasizes energy channels and pressure points.

"Everybody has his or her own interpretation of that routine," Jones says. "They kind of make it their own. The routine that I use has a certain flow to it. I might leave out some things and just focus on the things that people like, if somebody requests something specific."

The key is for the company and employees to feel comfortable with the therapist. Take it from Briefing.com, a Chicago-based company that provides financial news and analysis. The company sought a massage therapist "driven by a sense of ergonomics and keeping employees healthy," says Pat O'Hare, manager of investor content at Briefing.com.

The company started with one visit a week from a therapist. It's now up to two visits a week. The company and employees share the costs. Employees there feel good about their therapist, O'Hare says. More importantly, they just feel good.

"She's become kind of like one of us at Briefing.com," O'Hare says of the company's therapist. "She's a friendly face-and a nice face to see twice a week. We're glad that she understands that we put in a lot of hours and do a lot of sitting and staring at a computer."


A few Things to Know

Your chair. "We did a large event one time in conjunction with about 40 other therapists…and many were not trained in how to perform chair massage or even how to adjust the chair. That had a huge impact on clients who had never had a chair massage before." -Jason Miller

Your client. "I think what makes any therapist successful is to be able to establish that rapport on a nonverbal basis. They get an impression of you in a matter of seconds. If you don't connect with them, you might not get another chance. You have to do everything you can to establish that rapport quickly and do everything you can to make them feel comfortable." -Marilyn Kier

Your boundaries. "When things change, what are you willing to do and not willing to do? The owner of a company, at the last minute, called to cancel the chair massage gig. I said, 'OK, I do expect payment,' even though I didn't work. I had blocked out that time, and I wasn't going to fill that time on short notice." -Gary Jones

Your business arrangements. Companies that pay 100 percent of the massage costs make for convenient and seemingly stable, but not necessarily long-term, business arrangements. When the employee pays all or part of the cost of the massage, "they seem to see more value in the massage. Those who do it because the company pays for it don't always see the value right away." Also, "when companies are trying to cut the budget, that's the program that gets hit relatively quickly." -Kevin Zorda

Your business potential: "It's a very rare occasion that somebody receives a chair massage and doesn't become a repeat customer." -Julie Wallace

Studies: Moderate Pressure is the Key

Studies by the University of Miami's Touch Research Institute underscored the power of workplace massage.

A 1996 study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience showed that massaged adults exhibited enhanced mental alertness, completed math problems in significantly less time and with more accuracy, and exhibited lower job stress levels after a five-week period.

A 2004 study, also published in the International Journal of Neuroscience, showed that anxiety scores decreased for all groups who received moderate massage (an indentation in the skin), light massage (light stroking) and vibratory stimulation-but that the group receiving the moderate pressure displayed the greatest decrease in stress.

"We found that moderate pressure was the key," Tiffany Field, PhD, one of the leaders of both studies, says of the 2004 study. "You don't get those brain-waves changes and the heart-rate slowing and people being in a more relaxed state in light-pressure massage."

Field says the studies didn't compare the length of massage-therapy sessions. "All I can say is that you won't get the effects unless you use moderate pressure," she says. "I don't think the routine is as much of an issue as moderate pressure. We've done 10 minutes, a half hour, 15 minutes. That doesn't seem to be a factor."

I had three good reasons for getting a chair massage:

  1. I was getting ready to write an article about it;
  2. I had $18 in my pocket-enough for a $15, 15-minute massage and a small tip;
  3. I was getting nagged by my back and shoulders, which were telling me: "If we don't start feeling better soon, you're in big trouble." So I visited a therapist after work one day in downtown Chicago. The therapist took my coat and my glasses and told me to have a seat on the chair. I sat down on the chair but wasn't quite sure what else to do. I gingerly rested my chin on the doughnut-looking pad at the top. My eyes looked inquisitively toward the ceiling. My feet were on the floor, my arms at my sides. I felt uncomfortable. And I felt goofy. Said my back and shoulders: "You're killing us."

    The therapist, who apparently had assumed that I knew what to do with my head, hands, feet, knees, back and chin, gently and patiently directed me into position, and we were ready to go.

    She started by touching my back lightly, sweeping both hands in what felt like figure-eights. It relaxed me, and I liked it. She then really went to work, applying moderate pressure to my back, neck and shoulders. It wasn't doing much for me. It felt as though her hands and my relief were slipping away.

    After a few minutes, the therapist told me that she couldn't seem to work through my dress shirt. It was 60 percent cotton and 40 percent polyester-apparently great for killing both wrinkles and massages. I took off my overshirt, and the therapist quickly found what she told me was a trigger point in the upper left side of my back. It was a sign of some sort of repeat activity, she said. I thought about it, and she was right: For months, I'd been carrying a heavy work bag-always on my left shoulder-to and from my commuter train.

    Her revelation prompted me to adjust the load in my bag and to occasionally switch shoulders, and her work made the pain go away. I also liked the attention she gave my arms and fingers.

    I knew the session was coming to a sad, but soothing, end when she reverted to light touches and figure-eights. She concluded with a couple of light, little taps as if to say: "Atta boy. You finally listened to your body."

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