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The knead is great.

Debora Foster takes off her necklace, settles on a padded chair, and gently leans forward. With a jazz-piano tape playing softly in the background, the soothing hands of Sabina Vidunas begin tO work on Foster's neck and shoulders.

It's like an oasis in this room," Foster puffs. She is in the directors' lounge of H. J. Heinz Co., 60 floors above the bustle of Pittsburgh. There, amid oil paintings and marble tables, massages are administered every Wednesday.

"On days that I'm really busy," says Foster, who works in public relations for the company, "it seems decadent to take time off for a massage."

Although such sessions may never replace coffee breaks, on-site massage is infiltrating corporate America. In some companies, middle managers sneak massage therapists into the office, fearful that upper-level executives won't approve.

Not What You Might


Foster's indulgence is nothing like the oily, hour-long rubfests" enjoyed by spa visitors. Nor does it all resemble-despite what some executives think-the more intimate variety offered at specialty parlors in bad parts of town. On the contrary, office rubdowns usually take place in dimly lighted conference rooms, where stressed-out employees relax in specially designed chairs, fully clothed. The massages last 15 minutes and typically cost about $10.

Some companies, including Heinz, even pay part of the fee. Vidunas has been seeing some 15 clients a visit since the program was started at Heinz last year. Anthony J. F. O'Reilly, the company's chairman, swears by her firm touch, saying regular massages are a balm for his old football injuries.

Massage advocates say that kneading the head, shoulders, neck, and back can go a long way toward easing tension and improving morale. They also insist that touching is a basic need, as powerful as the need for food or sleep, and that the office is as good a place as any to do it.

"The blood flows to your head, you feel lightheaded, and you don't feel tension around the head or neck," says Minnie Morey, a supervisor at the Social Security office in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where massages began last month. "When you leave the room after your massage, people say you look like you're glowing." Adds Candice Ohlman, the 35-year-old masseuse who plies her trade in the Grand Rapids office, "They fall in love with my hands."

Not everyone, however, is at ease with office massage. Three years ago, the Internal Revenue Service's office in San Jose, California, opened its doors to on-site massage. And even though employees paid the - bill, the taxpayers grumbled.

"Sometimes, with the release of stress, you hear 'oohs' and 'ahs' coming out of the room," explains Morgan Banks, the agency's health specialist. "And you can't have taxpayers coming into an audit hearing oohs' and ahs.,

Last month, the complaints intensified and the massages ended. "Now we're looking for a room with thicker walls," Banks says.

Massage also has an image problem to contend with. Some masseurs have tried to get around this by calling themselves "bodyworkers" and describing their office visits as "reinvigoration breaks." But massage, no matter how chaste, is still associated in many minds with seedy fronts for prostitution, and that makes some executives nervous.

Last year, the research and development division of Weyerhaeuser Company, the wood-products concern, invited a masseuse to its Tacoma, Washington, offices. Phil Harms, a software engineer, was an eager customer. "You build up a lot of tension working at a terminal all day," he says.

But after about eight months, the vice president of the division, Ed Soule, learned about the sessions and brought them to a halt. Soule's only beef was that the massages were being given in a company conference room; the department's supervised health facility would have been fine. "In my view, [massages] should be managed with an appropriate mixture of males and females around," he says.

Given such attitudes, some corporate masseurs go about their business quietly. Russell Borner of Park Ridge, New Jersey, says he has been working for the past year at a huge chemical and manufacturing concern in New York-unbeknown to the company's executives. He visits the same department every two or three weeks. His massage chair is kept in a closet, and a secretary escorts him past security.

"This is common with a lot of large companies," says Borner, who worked for American Telephone & Telegraph Company for 23 years before choosing his current trade. Managers, he contends, "are afraid of how they're going to look in the eyes of their peers. My vision is to change human consciousness towards touch. My attitude is: Let's come out of the closet."

Corporate Camouflage

Occasionally, all that's needed is a little coaxing. Elisa Byler, a St. Louis masseuse, won over officials at Emerson Electric Company, a maker of electrical and electronic equipment, by providing documents and other articles trumpeting the therapeutic benefits of massage. She notes that she also stresses professionalism during her weekly visits.

"I pull my hair back, wear a little makeup, and look corporate," says Byler, who has been visiting Emerson since January. "If I go in there as I normally dress, they'd ask, Who is this hippie?' "

The self-proclaimed father of on-site massage is David Palmer, a 41-year-old San Francisco masseur whose mission is to save the touch-starved masses. Palmer developed a portable massage chair three years ago that he hopes will bring "structured touching" into mainstream America.

"The culture is not ready to take off its clothes, lie down, and be touched for an hour for 45," he says. "The idea is to keep the clothes on and to keep people seated. The chair is a way to package massage."

Sitting in one of Palmer's chairs, which cost $425 and have since been copied by others, is a bit like straddling a recliner. Customers lean forward, rest their knees on side supports, and bury their face in padding on the back of the chair. (Ohlman, the Grand Rapids masseuse, says she has heard the contraption compared to something out of the Spanish Inquisition.)

Palmer, who serves as president of the On-Site Massage Association and writes an industry newsletter, says some 4,000 practitioners-out of about 50,000 certified masseurs across the country-now use massage chairs in the workplace, as well as on street comers, in airports and malls, and at conventions and other gatherings where weary people can be found.

Scot MacInnis, a masseur in Boulder, Colorado, had a scary experience while massaging a man in a natural foods supermarket as part of a store promotion. Three minutes into the massage, the man curled up, began shaking, and turned red. Paramedics were called.

A week later, the man told Maclnnis he had suffered a mild heart attack unrelated to the massage.

"It was a powerful point in my career," says the 31-year-old Maclnnis, who has since taken out a $1 million liability policy for his business. "But he pulled through, and after the ambulance left, there were still six people in line waiting for a massage. The next woman was older, and I was afraid to touch her. But it's like falling off a horse and getting back on."

Despite the number of fans that office massage has won, some purists look down on it, arguing that naked, full-body rubs are the only way to go. Linda Aldridge, who does full-body work in Pittsburgh, says that although on-site massage is better than nothing, tired workers should realize it is only the tip of the iceberg.

"Whole areas of their bodies are neglected," she says, adding that clothes ruin the experience. "There's nothing like skin to skin."
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Title Annotation:on-site massage for corporate professionals
Author:Hirsch, James S.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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