21st Century Workplace Seated Massage

From the first days of professional seated massage in the mid 1980s, massage in the workplace has been a significant market segment. When my business was providing chair, or seated, massage at companies such as Apple Computer, the service was clearly positioned as a workstyle benefit that set progressive 20th century businesses apart from their stodgy, suit-and-tie counterparts.

While that motivation still exists and evolved, another trend has emerged, driven by a shift in the health care industry that, if seized upon, has the potential to completely reshape the face of massage and the workplace.

The tradition

For the past three decades, chair massage has ebbed and flowed with the growth and recession cycles of the economy. The high-tech and bio-tech sectors, in particular, typically lead the upswing and provide fertile ground for workplace massage. These companies are often created, managed and staffed by a younger generation more interested in quality of life issues. Benefits such as free meals, childcare, concierge services and massage therapy are often part of benefits packages.

Theresa Crisci, who has been doing workplace chair massage for nearly 20 years in Connecticut, identified a big shift in corporate attitudes over the past two decades “For the most part, we no longer have to worry about sexual harassment issues being a barrier for chair massage in the workplace.” Crisci believes that chair massage actually holds a certain cachet for the current generation of young people in the workforce and the companies who employ them.

Another two decade practitioner, Tom Darilek, owner of Seize the Day Energizing Chair Massage, in Austin, Texas, believes employers consider regular massage to be simply another tool for attracting and retaining top tech talent. Darilek also notes that in the past, while companies occasionally would give lip service to chair massage as a wellness tool, they basically treated it as a fad that would fade as soon as the economy began to tighten.

Now, there are significant signs that the wellness fad may finally be here to stay—and there is every reason to believe that chair massage therapists may benefit.

The revolution

The future of workplace massage is tied to the economics of health care policy. At long last, corporate, governmental and academic policy makers have come to the conclusion that a health care system whose primary focus is sickness care is doomed to bankruptcy. They have concluded the ultimate foundation of an economically viable health care system has to be prevention and wellness.

This radical paradigm shift is stamped indelibly into the Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010. While the media and partisan politicians were obsessing about the constitutionality of ObamaCare and its new framework for financing health care, mostly overlooked was the fact that the 954-page ACA legislation specifically “directs the creation of a national prevention and health promotion strategy.”

The law created the National Prevention, Health Promotion, and Public Health Council (National Prevention Council), composed of the heads of 17 Federal agencies and chaired by the Surgeon General. This high-level federal action group works closely with a 25-member Advisory Group on Prevention, Health Promotion, and Integrative and Public Health, also mandated in the legislation. Both of these groups are developing plans and recommendations that will impact every strata of society, including workplace wellness.

Happily, massage therapy has a seat at the table of this health care revolution. One of the members of the Advisory Group is the esteemed Janet R. Kahn, Ph.D., a 30-year massage professional and the director of research of the Massage Therapy Research Consortium from 2003 to 2008. Her background in massage and integrative health makes her an ideal advocate for the inclusion of massage as these panels refocus the health care system on prevention and health promotion, two areas in which massage excels.

The National Prevention Council and the Advisory Group have already targeted the workplace as one of the primary arenas for implementing this new strategy. I will make the case that seated massage is ideally suited to lead the way in workplace wellness. Then, armed with a clear idea about how to describe and position the unique strengths of chair massage, I will make a few practical suggestions about finding companies ready to hear the message of chair massage.

This might be a good time to note that, while most of the following rationales could also be applied to table massage, the twin barriers of time and money make chair massage a far better fit for the vast majority of workplaces. Experience has shown that, in general, only the very largest companies include the option of table massage in their menu of wellness services.

The prevention intervention

The medical community has traditionally limited prevention to proven clinical screenings—mammograms, colonoscopies, blood pressure screenings, treadmill tests and the like. In the new health care model, prevention also includes dealing with lifestyle and pre-clinical conditions, a particular strength of chair massage.

Seated massage has always been good at preventing little problems from becoming big problems. The reason someone wakes up with a crick in her neck is never because, as she might claim, she “slept wrong.” Rather, it is because of weeks or months of accumulated psychological or physical stress finally reaching a tipping point that resulted in a muscle spasm. Regular chair massage alleviates the results of these minor stresses and prevents muscles from reaching that involuntary contraction threshold.

Too much mental stress is the primary or secondary cause of many medical conditions as well as an inhibitor to healing virtually all injury and disease processes. Most people will agree that high-quality chair massage is an instant stress reducer. While we don’t yet know all the exact mechanisms involved, there is sufficient scientific evidence to support the claim that massage is effective at reducing anxiety and depression.

Human beings were made to move. When employees are immobilized by their jobs at desks and keyboards, their bodies will eventually break down and rebel. The coin of movement has two sides: active movement where people move themselves, which we call exercise, and passive movement where someone else creates the movement, which we call massage. Regular seated massage moves the tissue, which enhances circulation, which lets the body’s own self-healing mechanisms work most efficiently. Neither movement nor circulation is optional and chair massage provides a heaping serving of both.

Immobilized bodies that don’t move result in what Thomas Hanna, the great somatics pioneer, more elegantly termed sensory-motor amnesia. That is to say, chronically contracted muscles which eventually stop giving feedback to the higher cortex of conscious awareness. When this happens we are no longer able to feel the imbalances we have created and we begin to think that our bad posture is normal.

Seated, or chair, massage restores the mind-body connection and we feel better in two important ways: First, we feel the relief of the multi-tiered rebalancing that comes at the end of a massage; second, our capacity for experiencing sensation inside our bodies increases.  We can now feel more and we can feel better. If we are not getting accurate feedback about the state of our health, we see no reason to change. Massage restores that feedback loop and shows us that we have control over how we feel.

This enhanced self-awareness brings us to the second set of rationales for seated massage in the workplace.

Making wellness work

Advocates of wellness and health promotion know in order for the health care paradigm to shift from treatment to prevention, people must be motivated to make significant lifestyle changes.

We have known for decades that five chronic diseases–heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes–are responsible for more than two-thirds of all deaths in the United States. We also know the progression of all these conditions is heavily influenced by lifestyle. Studies have repeatedly shown we would save billions of health care dollars every year if we ate better, exercised more, reduced chronic stress and didn’t smoke.

So why haven’t we change our lifestyles? Because change requires effort and motivation.

One of the unique aspects of chair massage, unlike any other workplace wellness modality, such as smoking cessation, dietary modification, exercise, Yoga or meditation, is it requires no motivation to change. It works immediately with no effort or intervention required on the part of the recipient. With massage, people also come to realize that they have far more control over how they feel than they ever imagined and thus become more motivated to change.

The frosting on the cake is that chair massage also supports every lifestyle change. No matter where you are on the spectrum of wellness, from couch potato to super athlete, if you want to break a habit, start a new one or support any transition in your life, adding massage will immediately make you feel better and positively reinforce your efforts.

Finally, seated massage is the most egalitarian of all wellness programs. You don’t have to be overweight or a smoker or have high blood pressure or even be stressed out to qualify and benefit from regular massage. The only ultimate contraindication for massage is an individual’s reluctance to be touched.

A major transition

Chair massage in the workplace is at a moment of major transition. In the emerging health care economy the time is right to position yourself as a serious wellness consultant who provides massage services. There has never been a better time to showcase the benefits of massage and create a true health care system, one body at a time.