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RMT burnout: Changing your schedule can free up much-needed vacation time


January 26, 2020
By Ken Ansell

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Photo: Chalabala/Getty Images Plus

Driving to work on a frigid morning, singing along with Zac Brown on the radio about a tropical vacation had me wondering: “What the heck am I doing wrong here?”

For quite a few years I took my tropical family vacation every second year. As my life got me wrapped up on my own hamster wheel of business, bills, expansion and clients, I slowly put my own needs on the back burner. I am now heeding my own advice, and this winter I need to get to the beach!

As many massage therapists across the country are self-employed, paid vacation is something we don’t really have a concept of. Whichever way you look at it – vacation time, or saving money for time off – the end result is the same: self-care. I am sure you have wondered what life would be like with a couple extra weeks of paid vacation every year.

As healthcare providers, we spend so much of our time putting the needs of our patients/clients first, and so we should. We make the effort to pursue continuing education courses and refresh or learn new techniques to better treat our patient’s conditions. We often put in extra time to fit people in. We consult and collaborate with other healthcare providers to determine the best options for patient care.

Patient treatment needs are the one thing that every healthcare provider should strive to put FIRST. To do everything we can within our ability as a therapist to help those who are seeking treatment. Without happy clients getting their clinical outcomes, we have no business. However, in that quest for providing the best for them, we tend to forget we also need to look after ourselves. Although we need clients to have a thriving business, if we do not spend time looking after what we need, both physically and mentally, we can’t provide any care for those patients, which results in no business.

In terms of sanity, a break away from work is one of the best ways to avoid mental burnout. The last few years I have missed out on my winter vacation and I am definitely feeling it. Working in health care where we address patient complaints all day has its own effect on our mental wellbeing. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, the three reasons to take a vacation are:

  1. “Time away from work can boost your creativity. One of the biggest perks of vacation time is the break in routine. By changing things up during your time off, you expose your brain to new experiences and allow for your creativity to flow freely.”
  2. “Vacation time improves overall mental health. Time off from work provides an opportunity to focus on areas of your life that you may neglect when you’re hard at work. This means you’ll have more time for self-care, more time to spend with loved ones and more time to enjoy your favourite activities.”
  3. “Taking vacation time can reduce stress and re-energize you. Taking a vacation from work helps to relieve work-related stress, and reduces the symptoms of burnout. Vacations allow you to recharge your battery; they help boost your energy so that you return to work ready to take on new challenges.”

Another thing that plagues massage therapist’s careers is physical burnout. Massage therapy is definitely manual labour. I don’t know the exact numbers, but have read that the average career of a massage therapist lasts five to seven years. Many therapists find it difficult to keep up with the physical demands of the profession. Imagine if, while looking after patient needs, we could also look after ourselves, physically, mentally and financially to afford that vacation.

There are ways that we can re-organize our practice to still provide the best quality care and help prevent some of the physical burnout experienced by so many therapists. One area I looked at was the length of time massage therapists spend doing treatments. We are one of the few healthcare providers who sell treatment in blocks of time. Granted, patient needs are paramount, and they need to be given the treatment and time that best suits their needs. Finding a balance between what the patient needs and what we as a therapist need to extend the longevity of our career is something that most therapists never consider. As I said earlier, without our ability to provide treatments, we have no business. I started to wonder about the overall impact treatment time has both physically and financially on massage therapists.

No two situations are the same and there is no real easy way to compare with all the variables of treatment time in a typical massage therapy practice. The model I used for this was to compare if you did all half-hour treatments, all 45-hour treatments or all one-hour treatments with the following constants:

  1. Start work at 9am
  2. One-hour lunch break
  3. 15 minutes between each patient for charting, etc.
  4. Five-day work week
  5. 48 work weeks with four weeks of holidays
  6. Not working more than eight hours per day, including lunch (*The last column shows one-hour treatments and 8.5 hour days)

This is quite eye-opening when you analyze the difference between your contact hours comparing half-hour, 45-minute and one-hour treatments. Both 30- and 45-minute treatments provide you with substantially less contact hours to generate a similar level of income. The length also provides you with more breaks throughout the day, both between treatments and with less continuous treatment time – reducing physical stress on the body.

I do think that if you were to streamline your practice by utilizing shorter treatment times, you will be doing your body a huge favour. This may result in your ability to enjoy a longer massage therapy career and will definitely help you with the physical burnout that so many massage therapists suffer from. You can also help reduce mental burnout as well. I hope you all can find that balance between what your patients need and what you as a therapist need to ensure you have an enjoyable career that exceeds the five- to seven-year average.

The finances are an interesting topic all on their own. I am sure that most therapists have never analyzed how different treatment times affect your overall income. I know I never did before that cold drive to work. The extra earning potential may just help you save for that couple of weeks with your toes in the water.


Ken Ansell, RMT, D.Ac., has been a massage therapist in Regina for over 24 years, obtaining his educaton from the Western College of Remedial Massage Therapies. He is a member of MTAS, the Provincial Medical Acupuncture Association, and the Canadian Contemporary Acupuncture Association.


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