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Detoxify your spa workplace – 4 steps

Posted by on July 20, 2018 in Articles

Detoxify your spa workplace – 4 steps

Spa, heal thyself. We’re great at getting toxins out of our clients. Now let’s get them out of our workplaces.

By Vivienne O’Keeffe

You’d think an industry singularly focused on helping people survive the deleterious effects of modern living would itself be a model of health and harmony. Instead, factors including increased demand, stress, fatigue and exhaustion are eating at the heart of many of today’s spas – and doing so at a time when the industry is crying for aestheticians, massage therapists, spa managers and directors to fill record-high vacancies (33,000 in the U.S. alone according to the International Spa Association Foundation).

In my capacity as a consultant I deal with spa managers regularly, and they tell me the symptoms are rampant: employees showing up late or calling in sick, forcing managers to scramble to re-book clients. Service providers sabotaging employers because they feel like they’re doing more than their fair share. Nasty comments in social media poisoning employee relations and dragging morale to levels that could put some spas out of business.

Millennials present their own issues. As a group, they can be superb employees – engaged, Internet-savvy, hard-working and reliable. But don’t expect them to blindly follow orders like their parents may have done. They want a conscious work environment, characterized by integrity and respect. They want more work-life balance than some employers may be comfortable granting. And as today’s employment figures show, they can afford to be picky about who they work for.


Employee disengagement in the spa industry

Let’s look at some of the things that can cause employee disengagement in the spa industry, then discuss ways to prevent it.


1) Emotional contagion

We all know what it’s like to bear the wrath of an angry boss. Toxic spills of emotion can be catastrophic to the spa environment, its employees and its guests. Emotional contagion can also spread on social media, as we saw in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign that spent $85 million on micro-targeted ads on Facebook and Twitter and effectively dissuaded many Hillary supporters from voting. Negativity circulated online among groups of employees is becoming more common, and can grow like mould in cheese.


2) Unfairness (real or perceived)

Even monkeys can tell when they’re not being treated fairly – as shown in a famous experiment where cucumbers and grapes were unevenly distributed among them). Workplace leaders who pick favourites risk creating a culture of disengagement, where employees feel short-changed or unloved, stop recommending extra products or services, or even resort to drastic actions like bad-mouthing their bosses. “Why bother trying?” they may wonder. “She/he doesn’t care about me anyway!”


3) Feelings of powerlessness

Feeling weak, powerless or bullied at the hands of people in authority inevitably leads to bitterness, burnout and exhaustion. It gets more complicated with victims from cultures that discourage conflict, who may lack the practice or confidence or courage to stand up for themselves.


4) Projection of unresolved internal conflicts

Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist Carl Jung observed that unconscious conflicts tend to be projected onto others, i.e., attributed to other people or external situations. Such projection may lead to the kinds of erroneous perceptions you might develop, for example, when you think a co-worker is angry – even though he or she feels quite content. Unresolved complexes in team members, particularly in leaders, can create a merry-go-round of repetitive drama as the pathology manifests in a neediness that can suck the energy out of otherwise spirited team members.


5) Our perceptions

What we think of others affects how they respond to us. If we consciously see them as incapable, they will live up to our expectations. The opposite is also true. In a famous experiment that manipulated the expectations of teachers, students chosen at random and labelled with high IQs were treated as gifted by their teachers, and achieved significantly improved results.

Many worthy enterprises have failed because the leadership lacks the skills, commitment, depth and maturity needed to advance the new paradigm. And the commitment must be authentic. Peter Senge at MIT’s Sloan School of Management points to an old saying in traditional Chinese culture: “To become a leader you must first become a human being.”

“In our culture today, we more or less think we are born human beings because we have a physically oriented worldview,” says Senge. “But in many if not most cultures in human history, life was a journey of becoming human.”


What can you do in your workplace?

A positive team spirit starts in the developmental stages of a successful wellness facility – with conscious leaders who inspire employees/team members to innately want to facilitate restorative experiences for clients. Authentic heartfelt interactions have demonstrably beneficial effects on the nervous systems of both individuals involved in an interaction. We absorb our environments and consciously and unconsciously track the internal landscapes of the people we are with.


Consider these few basic steps:


1) Do the inner work to become an inspirational leader

Authentic leadership is the bedrock of every successful business, and it starts with a deep commitment to – and therefore significant investment of time in – the cultivation of a self-reflective, mindful practice. Commitment creates openings, and inner development is a pre-requisite for the self-actualization you need to be an effective leader. As Lao-Tzu said, “The way to do is to be.” In his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh says: “During the moment one is consulting, resolving, and dealing with whatever arises, a calm heart and self-control are necessary if one is to obtain good results. If we are not in control of ourselves but instead let our impatience or anger interfere, then our work is no longer of any value.”


2) Listen more than you talk

Envision your team members reaching their highest potential. Don’t expect you or them not to make mistakes – you both will. But make sure you set goals and commit to them, because if you don’t, you can’t expect your staff to. And remember, personal interaction – your intentions, voice, tone – can create or destroy dialogue. Be present with the individual in front of you, not distracted by self-doubt. The greatest gift is to listen, which means being present. Team members whose input is recognized feel empowered and trusted. If their suggestions are not feasible at this time, then at least let them know they were considered.


3) Work from possibility rather than from reactivity or resignation

The unique, conscious experiences your clients expect begin with you and your staff. Senge talks about collective reflections – weekly team meetings followed by an extra hour to review what was not said. How many times have you walked out of a meeting and wondered aloud to yourself or to a colleague why you didn’t say what was on your mind? In the right environment, no one will need to wonder.


4) Create certainty and empowerment

We need to create systems and processes that build certainty and confidence, and to let team members know they’re an integral part of the experience. That includes making it okay (in training, at least) to learn by trial and error – the seeds of continuous improvement. Feeling free to occasionally err helps prevent the brain’s flight-or-fight response that wells up in the face of threats, uncertainty and a downward spiral of self-doubt. Remember, it’s your entire team that interacts with your clients, and those clients pick up on all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle emanations.

The social and community lives of your team members can also affect their sense of connection and well-being. Extroverted team members will enjoy the camaraderie of the staff room, while more introverted ones will appreciate quiet spaces to recharge their batteries.

Mainly, it’s about effectively being and effectively communicating. Don’t be afraid to tackle tough issues head-on, even if it feels painful. And don’t be surprised if it comes as a relief for your employees to open up about what’s bugging them. Nobody enjoys working in a toxic environment; they want a healthy workplace as much as you do. Do nothing and the problems will only get worse. But investing the time and effort can produce a healthier, happier, more productive operation for you, and a vastly enriched experience for your team and your clients.


Published as “Spa, heal thyself” in Spa Canada July/August 2018

Vivienne O’Keeffe, CIBTAC, AAD, PEA, European-trained therapist and spa development consultant, is President of Spa Profits Consulting Inc. Active professionally in the spa industry from 1986, she specializes in turning wellness concepts into new spa developments and excels at creating authentic guest experiences within a sustainable, successful framework of quality operations. Vivienne also develops product lines, treatment plans and training programs. She is a member of ISPA, International Management Consultants Inc. and Spa Industry Association of Canada (for which she won an Outstanding Achievement Award in 2001, 2005 and 2012).


  1. Very good article vivienne !

  2. Very insightful article and great tips for any leaders who are reading.

  3. Love this directly spoken article! I try to follow these steps to the best of my ability when leading my teams. I wonder though..if Serge says to become a leader we must first be a human being…how do we get our staff to see their leaders as human beings?
    As always, you are an inspiration Vivienne.

    • Great comment Andrea! A good way to facilitate a paradigm shift for a team member or another person – getting them to see you as a human being – is being a living inspirational embodiment of the values you cherish and hold dear. Also, stopping automatic reactive behaviour in team members by helping them to become grounded, present and more mindful of their interactions – this can be challenging when their flight and fight response is going full throttle. That is where inspirational leadership comes in. Let me know if this makes sense to you from your experience?

      • Thanks Vivienne. It makes sense and through my experience I DO find that when I’m grounded and stop automatic responses to my staff it encourages them to do the same. I’m extremely lucky to work with an outstanding heartfelt and joyful team. Can’t wait to read your next article!

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