You Scratch My Back

Massage therapists feel their way around corporate America

Standing behind a discreet Japanese screen partitioning a small space in one of Texas Instruments' vast hallways, massage therapist Lynn Street plugs her product. "These chemicals," she says about the endorphins released inside the human body during a rubdown, "will stay in the system for up to 72 hours."

It is a strange scene these days: A massage therapist's talking up the thinky-feely aspects of his or her services in the midst of corporate America, not a Whole Foods store.

Street, with her portable massage chair and disposable face pads, comes to Texas Instruments' corporate headquarters in North Dallas every week. For the discounted price of $8 for a 10-minute session, TI's pampered employees take a break in their workday, reduce their stress, and keep Street's hands busy.

The workplace massage is part of a trend at TI, Nortel Networks, Alcatel, Inet Corp., and half a dozen of the Dallas area's biggest high-tech companies. Competing with one another for highly sought-after computer-savvy workers, the employers are pressing their human resources managers to push the envelope way past previously envisioned boundaries and dream up benefits that will keep their people working away like happy elves.

Indeed, at TI, the workplace benefits are so plentiful that "TI-ers," as the corporate executives insist on calling each other, might not even have time for their massages. They will have to squeeze it in between stopping at their company's multiple in-house Starbucks counters and their calls to TI's subsidized errand services. Want to buy flowers for your wife, arrange a child's birthday party, or check on movie listings, but don't have enough time? At TI, just call the corporate concierge.

"They'll do anything for you that is not illegal, immoral, or unethical," says company spokeswoman Kim Quirk.

But the in-house massage therapist (please don't call them masseuses or masseurs anymore, says Street, because it conjures up images of "extra" services and too little clothing) is the most popular of the work-time treats now offered to the techies and their administrative and clerical colleagues.

While TI may have started this trend--offering rubdowns as early as five years ago, when the perk was uncommon even in California's Silicon Valley--Alcatel has joined in. The company started offering massages to employees in July at $1 a minute, says spokesman Brian Murphy.

The trend in the workplace has been a boon to the massage industry, which, according to some local practitioners, is experiencing rising sales overall. At Body Grafix in Plano, therapist Cathey Welch says her company sold 12,000 gift certificates valued at $45 apiece last year, compared with only 3,000 such treats in 1996.

Until a few months ago, Street--who, when she is not at TI, accepts clients in her Oak Cliff studio--had been employed by a dot.com company, which she won't identify in print. The dot.com footed the entire bill for her services so employees could get a 15-minute session for free. Under those generous terms, her days were full. She usually massaged 18 clients a day. "From the moment that I arrived, I was working," says Street. "I needed a massage at the end."

Even though that stint tired her out (she left because the company decided to pull that perk for a while and review its entire human-resources package, Street says), the massage therapist believes her practice does a body good. "A massage is one of the main ways a person can deal with stress," she says.

Her clients at TI run the whole range of ages, techies as well as administrators. At the end of her shift last week at TI, a long-haired, nerdy-looking engineering type glanced back and walked away quickly when a reporter came to ask questions--as though he didn't want anyone to read about his work-time retreats.

Street concedes that some reluctance exists among uninformed men, and, she says, she does tend to massage more women. Barbara Kruse, who's worked for five years in public affairs at TI, says she usually gets a back rub at work a couple of times a year. "I think with the fast pace of work, it's nice to rejuvenate," says Kruse, who came to TI right out of college.

Some 40 percent of Street's clients are men--many of them engineers. They tend to bear the stress on their shoulders and backs, she says. Street tells her corporate clients that getting massages is one way to reduce employees' health-care costs in the long run. Betty Parkey, manager of work and life programs at TI, also believes in the benefits of a rubdown. (Some of the executives at other companies wouldn't say it on the record, but they basically aren't considering adding massages to the company's benefits package because they think their employees are too spoiled already.)

In her post, Parkey reviews all the new trends in benefits. In-house day care, she says, is the one major perk her company doesn't supply, yet it's the one about which employees inquire most often. So far, few Dallas-area companies have begun providing on-site childcare. San Jose, California-based Cisco Systems, which announced earlier this year plans to expand significantly in this area, offers such a service at its West Coast facilities. If the trend picks up in Dallas, TI's Parkey concedes she'll have to consider that benefit just to keep up.

 
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