Keep a dysfunctional environment from damaging your business,
by Vivienne O’Keeffe, CIBTAC, AAD, PEA
An industry focused on helping people navigate the many hazards of modern living should itself be a model of health and harmony, right?
Instead, factors ranging from increased demands to stress, fatigue and exhaustion are tearing at the sails of many spas today – and doing so at a time when the industry is crying for aestheticians, massage therapists, spa managers and directors to fill record-high vacancies.
The symptoms are all too common: employees showing up late or calling in sick, workers sabotaging employers because they feel like they’re doing more than their share, nasty comments in social media eroding morale.
I had the pleasure and honour a few years ago of working with a group of educators assembled by the Global Wellness Institute (GWI) to produce and launch a comprehensive white paper entitled Mental Wellness: Pathways, Evidence and Horizons, which called attention to the importance of fostering mental wellness in both spa clients and employees.
“Workplace wellbeing requires an integrated holistic approach covering physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs (both preventive and interventive),” the paper reported. “When employees feel supported by their employers, they can better support guests to embrace similar wellness practices.”
In the Spa Business Handbook 2021-2022, Professor Gerard Bodeker, co-author of the paper and Chair of the Global Wellness Institute’s Mental Wellness Initiative, suggests prioritizing employee health.
“The message of mental wellbeing has to be lived at all levels in order to be conveyed effectively,” he says. “When employees are happy and feel taken care of, their productivity increases and the business flourishes.”
Dr Bodeker sees Covid as a generational opportunity for a reset. “We know that being understood, being in nature, being connected meaningfully to others, prioritising good, largely plant-based nutrition, having regular exercise, engaging in a meditative practice and having a sense of a higher influence in life all contribute to mental wellbeing. This is the time for those in the wellness industry to begin to craft programmes which incorporate all these pathways and offer them across the wide spectrum of society.”
But what causes employees to disengage in the first place?
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, employees and guests. Emotional contagion can also spread on social media, with negativity among employees circulated online grow like mould on cheese.
Unfairness (real or perceived)
A good example is, 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 products or services, or even resort to actions like bad-mouthing their bosses. “Why bother trying?” they may wonder. “She/he doesn’t care about me anyway!”
Feelings of powerlessness
Feeling weak, powerless or bullied by authority inevitably leads to bitterness, burnout and exhaustion. It gets more complicated among individuals inflicted with a victim mentality and/or from cultures that discourage conflict, who may lack the practice or confidence or courage to stand up for themselves.
Projection of unresolved internal conflicts
Carl Jung observed that unconscious conflicts tend to be projected onto others – attributed to other people or external situations. Such projections may lead to the erroneous perceptions you might develop, for example, when you think a co-worker is angry, even though he or she might be quite content. Unresolved conflicts in team members, particularly in leaders, can create a vicious cycle of repetitive drama.
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 randomly labelled with high IQs were treated as gifted by their teachers, and achieved significantly improved results.
New discoveries will help
As Dr Bodeker observed, therapists in the spa setting need to look after their own wellness to be authentic and effective in the services they offer, able to present themselves as exemplars of health, peace and wellness.
Fortunately, today’s industry is trending towards the emotional, spiritual and intellectual aspects of the wellness journey, for spa and employees alike. What excites me are the many new discoveries about the critical mind-body connection.
Rethinking your diet, for example, can be a massive game-changer. Drawing on articles about the human microbiome published in the magazine Nature, our white paper pointed out the strong connection between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain. “Dysregulation of the gut microbiota (microbiome) composition has been identified in a number of psychiatric disorders, including depression, Parkinson’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome,” we reported. “The microbiome-gut-brain axis is emerging as a key pathway for modulating behaviour.”
So-called psychobiotic bacteria – ones that have a beneficial effect upon behaviour and mood – are also being investigated for potential therapeutic interventions.
Another example, the humble sauna, already recognized for its wellness benefits including improvements in mental health, has now been found by researchers in Finland to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia with frequent use by men aged 42-60.
And in Japan, researchers have found a way to literally quantify wellness by measuring levels of substances called heat shock proteins (HSPs), which are produced in response to stressful conditions. Experienced by regular hot springs (onsen) users, HSPs repair proteins designed to protect the body from stress damage. A particularly important immune-enhancing one, HSP70, was found to significantly increase after 10-20 minutes of onsen bathing at 40-42º C and keeping warm for 15 minutes afterwards.
What leaders can do
Many enterprises fail because leaders lack the skills, commitment, depth and maturity needed for a major challenge like overhauling a toxic workplace. And good leadership means being a good human being.
“In our culture today, we more or less think we are born human beings because we have a physically oriented worldview,” says Peter Senge of MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “But in many if not most cultures in human history, life was a journey of becoming human.”
What can you do as a leader?
Do the inner work
Authentic leadership entails a strong commitment to cultivating a self-reflective, mindful practice. As the 400 BC philosopher Lao-Tzu observed in his Tao Te Ching, “The way to do is to be.”
In his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, Vietnamese Zen master 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.”
Listen more than you talk
Envision your team members reaching their highest potential. Don’t expect them (or yourself) not to make mistakes – you both will. But make sure you set goals and commit to them, because if you don’t, you certainly can’t expect your staff to. The greatest gift is to listen, by being present. Team members whose input is recognized feel empowered and trusted, even if their suggestions are not feasible.
Work from possibility rather than from reactivity or resignation
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. MIT’s Senge suggests booking an extra hour after weekly team meetings to review what was not said.
Create certainty and empowerment
Create systems and processes that build certainty and confidence, and 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 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.
Be open about it
Mainly, it’s about effectively being and 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.
What guests can do
Like staff, guests need to be pursuing their own strategies for a healthy lifestyle – while taking advantage of the many healthful activities provided by spas and other facilities.
But because programs like yoga and meditation may attract people who are prone to anxiety and panic attacks, spas need to know how to respond to episodes of such afflictions.
“We need to be bold about asking questions regarding mental wellbeing,” says Margareth Novaes Brephol, a psychologist specializing in couple and family therapy at Brazil’s first medical spa, Lapinha. “Printed protocols and clarification around boundaries and limitations can help us establish if a client needs outside help.”
Conclusion? If you do nothing problems will only fester and get worse.
Conversely, investing the time and effort can produce a healthier, happier, more productive operation for you. And a vastly enriched experience for your team and clients.