Taking Care of the Caregivers: Massage for Hospital Workers

Massage therapy has long been known for its physical and mental health benefits. Now, those benefits are helping some front-line hospital professionals deal with the stress and anxiety of working through a global pandemic.

If you had asked anyone in January 2020 if by March most of the world would be considering broad shutdowns due to a global pandemic, I’m not sure many would have answered “yes.” Of course, there were some, like medical researchers and health care professionals, who warned that we were due for a virus like COVID-19. But for many people, everyday life seemed to abruptly stop, as coping with and halting the virus required increasingly stringent rules and guidelines on business and social gatherings.

For front-line hospital workers, however, the exact opposite happened. Their lives not only didn’t stop, they shifted into overdrive as more COVID-19 cases were diagnosed, and hospitals started preparing for hitting—or exceeding—capacity.

In a profession that’s already stressful, some health care workers are now quickly learning about the new virus, all while treating COVID-19 patients and coping with the emotions of losing some of these patients. Finding ways to cope with stress, anxiety and pressure inherent in the health care profession—especially for hospital workers on the front lines—is an absolute must for both mental and physical well-being.

Fortunately, hospital workers are finding good sources of support from an allied health care profession: massage therapy.

Putting Front-Line Hospital Workers First

Shawnee Isaac Smith started The Heart Touch Project 25 years ago—at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic—to bring compassionate and therapeutic touch to suffering patients, eventually developing a curriculum for massage therapists interested in the work. When the HIV/ AIDS epidemic slowed, the organization adapted its mission to provide touch to other vulnerable patients, including critically ill infants, hospice patients and elderly clients. Today, Heart Touch trains massage therapists and health care providers in exchange for their commitment to volunteer therapeutic touch services for one year in a health care setting.

“Now, as we face the health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, Heart Touch is uniquely poised to make an impact on the health—and the hearts—of our friends and colleagues in the health care community,” explains Hannah Hall, chief operating officer of The Heart Touch Project in Santa Monica, California. “Our massage therapists, trained in COVID-19 safety protocols, are ready to help reduce the mental and physical exhaustion of our health care heroes with care, compassion and confidence.”

The exhaustion and strain front-line hospital health care workers face can be overwhelming and, oftentimes, hit from all sides: They worry about their patients, their own family members who may be sick, as well as keeping themselves safe. “Providers are facing debilitating questions like, ‘What if I get COVID-19?,’ ‘What if I bring COVID-19 home to my family?,’ ‘How am I going to tell my patient’s family members their loved one is dying?,’ ‘Could I have done more?,’” Hall says. “Hospital workers are looking for outlets to assist in pushing these thoughts aside for a second. Massage therapy provides an outlet for these caregivers to slow down, relax and quiet their thoughts so they can return to treat their patients with a clearer mind and heart.”

Spas and other massage therapy practices are also taking notice—and taking care—of front-line hospital health care workers. “We watched with amazement how the health care professionals put themselves at risk, how they willingly chose to care for others despite those risks, and we knew that we wanted to support those real heroes,” explains Theresa Armour, co-founder and co-owner of Burke Williams Day Spa in Inglewood, California.

That support came in the form of a One-to-One initiative, where, for every gift card purchased or membership renewed, the spa committed to providing a 50-minute massage or facial to a front-line health care worker. To date, Burke Williams has provided 14,000 health care workers with massage therapy and other services. “There is a palpable sense of mental and physical exhaustion from each individual,” notes Dana Buchman, chief marketing officer for Burke Williams. “It has  been heartwarming to hear their stories and to know that we’re able to provide a restful place, but also important therapy for their minds and bodies after such a stressful time.”

Massage Addict, based in Canada with locations across Canadian provinces, matched gift card purchases up to $100,000 for nurses to be able to enjoy the benefits of massage therapy. “We are a company that, on a daily basis, helps people manage pain, stress and anxiety,” explains Fraser Clark, the company’s chief executive officer. “It seemed fitting that we incorporated this into the way we honor front-line health care workers, specifically nurses.”

This same spirit of generosity and compassion—a sincere desire to help relieve stress and anxiety in hospital health care workers who are tirelessly working to stop COVID-19—spread throughout the massage therapy community.

Greg Robertson, owner of Massage Envy locations in Hillsborough, Flemington and Princeton/Lawrenceville, New Jersey, donated $78,000 in free massage in partnership with Hillsborough-area hospitals and an additional $65,000 to hospital staff in Flemington and Princeton. Following his lead, all 45 Massage Envy locations in New Jersey adopted the program and are working with area hospitals to provide free massage to hospital workers.

The Metropolitan Spa in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, donates a free massage to a local health care professional for every $100 gift card sold, partnering with Gunderson Health System and the Mayo Clinic Health System to find hospital staff that will benefit from the effort. In Northbrook, Illinois, Leslie Lee of Hand & Stone Massage and Fascial Spa donated more than $6,000 in gift cards to local health care workers, the result of members agreeing to keep or renew their membership while the spa closed during the first months of the pandemic. Many members also donated the unused packages they had left on their memberships.

Spavia locations across the U.S. are donating spa treatments to front-line hospital workers, with many owners, like Paul Groshko in Chicago, personally matching donations. “I hope we can alleviate their stress,” he says in a statement released by Spavia. “I know we can renew their bodies and their spirits in the little ways that are made possible during a session here at Spavia. We want to be able to provide an exceptional experience for them, and to help our front-line individuals come back stronger and healthier than ever.” To date, 551 spa treatments and gift cards have been donated across 15 Spavia Day Spas.

Putting the Human Back in the Hero

When you watch health care professionals show up day after day in situations that would make you feel nervous and afraid, it can be easy to forget that they’re people, too, with the same emotions as everybody else. “Health care providers are dealing with society’s projected persona that they are superhuman heroes who can withstand the endless pressure in extreme conditions,” Hall says. “And that’s simply not true. Although they’re incredibly strong, health care workers are human beings with emotions and struggles.”

Lindsey Burrell, an ICU nurse at the Provi- dence Little Company of Mary Medical Center in Torrance, California, describes her experience working in the pandemic environment as both physical and emotional. “In the beginning, I spent a lot of time trying to cope with the mental game that I was battling. The biggest challenge was interacting with human beings and my family and trying to put aside my anxiety,” she explains. “We health care providers are strong, but we are human beings, we have feelings and we’re affected by what we are seeing.”

Burrell receives massage therapy through The Heart Touch Project and says afterward she feels like a whole new person, more focused and composed. “I think that people in health care should rely on massage more,” she says. “We need to take time for ourselves to have that moment to just relax. You cannot provide excellent care if you have not taken care of yourself.”

Jennifer Sudarsky, M.D., lead physician at the Los Angeles County Quarantine and Isolation Site in Pomona, California, also receives massage through The Heart Touch Project. “After a massage, I sometimes feel tearful and elated, but mostly, I just feel the love and I want to spread it around,” she says. “I feel loved and feel loving. Can it get better than that?”

Staying Connected in the Community

Along with most people, many massage ther- apists are wondering what the future of their profession will be when COVID-19 is contained. Helping reduce the emotional and physical fatigue experienced by hospital workers on the front lines is one way massage therapists are staying connected to their profession, one another and people who benefit from massage therapy. “It’s sometimes the small gestures that are the most helpful,” Clark says. “We are in this together, and we’ll come out of this together.”

Don't Lose Yourself: Self-care for Massage Therapists

“Massage therapy is a helping profession that attracts compassionate people who want to make a difference in the lives of others,” says Hannah Hall, chief operating officer for The Heart Touch Project in Santa Monica, California. “The massage therapists who we’ve spoken to are relieved by the opportunity to work and help people during this time.” That doesn’t mean, however, that you don’t need to be careful and cognizant of your own health and well-being—both physically and emotionally.

The Heart Touch Project, for example, provides training on safety protocols to massage therapists working in their program who are going to work in hospitals. “The curriculum covers basic requirements, such as CDC guidelines about COVID-19 spread and symptoms, cleaning and sanitizing requirements, symptom screenings, clothing and proper PPE requirements and handling of linens, among other things,” explains Hall. “All therapists must be tested for COVID-19, observe social distancing and safety precautions in their personal lives, and be in good health to be considered for a position with us.”

Most massage therapists working with health care workers on the front lines of COVID-19 will rely on their self-care habits for emotional well-being, too. Be sure to take time for the self-care practices that help restore your physical and mental balance, like yoga or meditation, for example. Also, know your limits, and don’t be afraid to take time away if you’re feeling overwhelmed or an increase in your own stress and anxiety.