The Alive Workplace

Restoring Vitality, Love, and Trust to the Organizational Environment

By Stephanie Mines

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, December/January 2005.

“The question in an imperfect competitive reality is: How do we move forward together? How can enterprise touch and improve life?”

— Kevin Roberts, CEO Worldwide, Saatchi & Saatchi

The belief in compassion and human potential that is the basis of the healing arts is a new direction for an evolving business environment. Today’s rallying cry, at such places as Toyota and Proctor & Gamble, is for love, community, sustainability, and service. They have learned the lesson that without ethical, social, and environmental engagement, economic returns run dry.

What is a healthy workplace? It is empowering, relational, aware, flexible, generous, and honest. The physical architecture is clean, spacious, well-ventilated and well-lit, and suited to the tasks and the people performing them. There are non-work spaces available for rest and relaxation. The theme is open communication, stimulating inquiry, and physical respect. While this may seem a high standard, it is actually an easy one to achieve through perseverance and commitment. It is also the most profitable.

“Healthy people make fewer mistakes,” says Lawrence Germann, CEO of Left Hand Design, an aerospace engineering firm in Colorado. “Healthy people work faster. Real health results in high levels of productivity. People who are so healthy that they are happy make a business grow from marginal financial success to share-the-wealth levels of financial success. There is absolutely no question that healthy people make for a financially expansive workplace.”

Susan Rhodes, Ph.D., a consultant with Positive Change Corps., says the “health of an organization is directly determined by the health of its people. The organization is its people.” And executive entrepreneurs David Batstone and Kevin Roberts state passionately that financial benefit is the natural result of the “alive” workplace. When workers are enthusiastic, they are efficient and productive, the two say. When employees are part of the team of a corporation, they are committed to profitability.

A healthy workplace involves several aspects, including physical health, emotional (spiritual, energetic) ambiance, and physical environment. When all three of these aspects are balanced, the workplace is a healthy community and financial success is a natural outgrowth.

So how can massage therapists and bodyworkers contribute to this new era of healthy workplace? By being part of it. “Stress and trauma have no place to go but underground in a workplace that is driven by busy-ness,” says Cynthia Kneen, management consultant and author of Awake Mind, Open Heart and the upcoming Business and the Buddha. “We learn to tough it out, but the cost to our creativity, innovation, balanced judgment, enthusiasm, service, and empathy is enormous. The case for healing the workplace is strong. We are just starting to see the enormous costs to business of ignoring our humanity,” she says.

One of the easiest and most successful ways to promote health and healing in the workplace is to recognize and address the stress created therein and seek to defuse it by providing massage and bodywork on-site or to make it, along with other somatic therapies, readily available for employees. It’s in that vein that massage therapists would ultimately do well to understand corporate dynamics, stresses, and tensions and to market their skills proficiently in the corporate environment.

The Relationships of Business

Relationships are central to the workplace. In fact, relationships are the cornerstone of business. And successful relationships, unquestionably, are a function of health. Since healthy relationships make for success in the marketplace, it only makes sense they foster health and healing in the workplace. It is true that financial success can occur when a healthy relationship is not present or even valued. However, there is always a heavy price to pay for this success. Inevitably, there is substantial turnover and a non-relational, decision-making body that lacks perspective and creativity. Some business owners choose to pay this price rather than relinquish control.

People are the mainstay of business and the source of success. Providing a healthy workplace for them nourishes the roots of the business garden. As we move increasingly toward business based primarily on intellectual properties that flow from inventive human creativity, this is even more true. So important are values and relationship in the workplace that Batstone says companies owe their allegiance first and foremost to their credibility and not to their shareholders. This, Batstone believes, is the only remaining route to success for the business world.

About 12 years ago, organizational psychologists played with the idea of the workplace as a replica of the family. Unwittingly, they said, people were drawn into the work environment to reenact their family dramas. Coworkers, bosses, indeed everyone down to the maintenance crew, took on the role of each other’s family members simultaneously. This creates an unconscious undertone, the hum of unresolved relational static that weaves a mysterious web of compulsivity.

In 2004, we are growing increasingly holistic, adding more dimensions to this family reenactment theory, including a heightened consciousness of the psychological and physiological implications of stress. Workplaces are not only venues for human interaction and productivity, they are also places where physical and spiritual needs are expressed. This has always been true, but now we are acknowledging these aspects of the workplace as human community. The physical design and structure of the workplace shapes the physical health of the individuals who inhabit those spaces. Sensitivity to the emotional and spiritual levels within the workplace is essential to combat the steady rise of workplace violence, such as mobbing — when an alienating work environment has workers ostracizing other workers, thereby sabotaging emotional and psychological workplace dynamics. In the final analysis, the overall health of the workplace signals healthy revenues.

Beyond this, what happens in the workplace affects the larger environment, including the immediate neighborhood or community, the culture as a whole, and even the planet. As Gun Denhart, founder of the successful Hanna Andersson clothing line and developer of the Hannadowns program to benefit children in need, says, “You can’t run a healthy company in an unhealthy community. If the community falls apart, your company will suffer as well.” Of course this is true on a global level as well and is precisely why corporations have an unquestionable responsibility to care for the environment and not plunder it.

Companies can and do take value-based stands, even radical ones, and succeed financially. Caring about the world (both the environment and its inhabitants) is entirely realistic. There are many examples. Here’s just one. Kinko’s, L.L. Bean, and Patagonia refused to do business with Boise Cascade, a giant timber company. They boycotted their paper products because Boise Cascade harvested old-growth trees. This ultimately forced the timber company to reevaluate its supplier relationships and, in 2002, prompted it to drastically reduce old-growth logging.

Courage is another attribute of health.

Why Bring Massage and Bodywork into the Workplace?

Tom Chappell, founder of Tom’s of Maine, is famous for his corporate mission and his success. “Managing for profit and for the common good — it works,” he says. Companies like Tom’s and Cliff Bars support their employees to stay physically fit, to learn, and to heal. They pay them to exercise and relax during the work day, and they provide the space for these things to happen. They also pay them to attend personal growth and healing seminars. Hanna Andersson, the children’s clothing company, pays a portion of employees’ child care costs and donates both profits and clothing to children in need. Timberland, the shoe company, pays employees to volunteer in their community. These investments result consistently in increased profits and enduring customer and employee loyalty.

Providing massage and other bodywork to employees is another guaranteed high return investment for success. An employee’s body and brain are the very vehicles of business accomplishment. It makes good sense to invest in those bodies, providing service by nurturing them, soothing them, and restoring them from their labors. In addition, educated touch also soothes the nervous system, thereby hampering the potential for conflict in the workplace.

People under stress are profoundly transformed through the experience of massage, energy medicine, or any of the other somatic therapies specifically designed to speak to the nervous system and allow the primitive, survival brain to relax so that higher, more creative functions can dominate. It is because the primitive brain, which speaks directly to the kidney-adrenal structure (ruler of immune system strength), cannot differentiate past from present that current stressors attach to and evoke historical violations. A therapist who understands this and can provide differentiating resources literally can help change the way conflict is perceived. Employees freed of patterns of over-adrenalization (either sympathetically or parasympathetically driven) are liberated into their inventive creativity.

In addition to general well-being motivations, employers can extend time and co-payment for somatic therapies when workers are chronically absent or when “presenteeism” is observed. Presenteeism identifies employees who show up but are distracted by tension, stress, and pain. Estimates made by Stress Directions, a company investigating and documenting stress levels in the workplace, indicate that presenteeism costs small companies more than $1.9 million a year. The cost to bigger companies is estimated to be more than $115 million a year. In addition, Stress Directions, along with physician John Sarno, have clear evidence that “back pain has been the No. 1 industrial health and workers’ compensation cost problem in the United States and is on the rise.”1

There is compelling research suggesting that psychosocial variables are at the core of chronic back pain. In an award-winning study, Dr. Eugene Carragee of Stanford University found that “back pain is a psycho-physiological phenomenon involving psychosocial components that typically go undetected and untreated.”2

The Bodies of Business

Physical bodies are marvelous instruments, and it is almost a truism to say we take them for granted. However, whether we recognize them or not, they are actively participating in the workplace and offering their owners a running commentary on work experience. In fact, you could say our bodies give us regular, personalized work evaluations. We need only the education to read the data. This is what a somatic therapist can provide. Bodies freed of stress, both from the past and the present, naturally become creative, motivated, and participatory.

Bodies that love their work can’t wait to go there. Bodies that dislike their work may refuse to go. Resistant bodies may not have much to contribute even when they do go to work. Dialoguing with the body is easy when you know how, and everyone can learn. The advisory committees are your own cells living in your connective tissue, and these cells are tremendously responsive. You don’t have to be a medical professional to speak their language. Connective tissue is articulate and immediately communicative. Are you listening?

It is hard to imagine an employee who would not feel eager to go to a workplace where her body is esteemed. The reward for nurturing the body in the workplace is enhanced creativity, efficiency, and (the favored word of business) productivity. Providing massage, energy medicine, or other bodywork opportunities in the workplace sends an unquestionable message of true caring.