Detoxifying the workplace

Detoxifying the workplace

Ben L. Teehankee

July 5, 2007

The View From Taft, Business World

Recently, my wife and I celebrated our anniversary by visiting a spa together. And what a great experience it was! The pampering and soothing experience made me understand why spas have become so popular even in a warm country such as ours. Of course, the other reason is that market pressures and ambitious organizational goals have raised work stress to such high (some say toxic) levels that people yearn for the relief that the spas provide.

But why should workplaces be so "toxic" anyway? Is it a law of nature that work should be such a grinder for most people? Or is it possible to turn workplaces to soothing, spa-like enclaves, too? Managers can learn many lessons from spas to help them “detoxify” the workplace.


In a spa, the staff greet you with warm smiles, making you feel important and welcome. In many workplaces, greetings are a thing of the past, and warmth just seems too much to expect from people. But the little civilities are what make the hustle and bustle of modern living tolerable. Greeting co-workers is a small effort to make the workplace friendlier. And using the person’s name makes it even more special: “Good morning, Carol. How are you this morning?” Of course, if there are just too many people to greet with words, there’s always a look in the eyes with a smile and nod of the head.

When I would ask questions of spa staff, I noticed how they paid attention to every word I said. In today’s fast-paced, technology-enabled workplace, attentive listening is becoming a precious commodity. When someone is sharing thoughts or ideas, it’s important for co-workers, whether superiors or colleagues, to listen attentively. It sends a clear message of respect and importance. Let’s put our cell phones and PDA’s aside for a while and invest our precious attention on the people we work with.


A steam bath can be excruciatingly hot. So the spa attendant advised me on how to do it just right based on how much heat I could take. In many organizations, work tends to flow down the hierarchy and across departments with little thought about the load of the people receiving the work. Workers can’t be blamed for sometimes feeling like they have been buried under a landslide or departments for feeling they’re being hit by mortar fire by a distant enemy. Lack of consideration or insensitivity breeds resentment and resistance. People learn to fire back, whether openly or secretly, and stress levels go up all around.

Workplace stress can be reduced by showing sensitivity to people’s workload. If giving additional work to someone is absolutely necessary, a discussion with the person on lead times and needed support would make the burden more manageable.


A massage by an expert masseuse is soothing and invigorating. The sensitive and knowledgeable application of just the right pressure on the right muscle makes worries fade away. To a worker, nothing is more soothing to self-esteem than sincere affirmation – knowing that one’s work is valued. Managers can massage self-esteem by pointing out how a person’s strengths help the company. “Excellent presentation, Susan! Your fresh data and analysis will help us improve our strategy.”

Colleagues are important sources of affirmation. A quick text message costs a peso and thirty seconds but can be priceless to the recipient: “Thanks for the lead on what the client needed. It helped us bag the contract!” And yet, too many times, we miss seizing such opportunities.


My wife and I went to a spa to celebrate our years of marriage – no mean feat. Similarly, many spa habitués know that no matter how demanding the work becomes, they deserve to celebrate and feel good after their struggle to deliver on tough goals. Sometimes, they just celebrate for having survived another week!

A celebration reenergizes the spirit. It doesn’t even have to be grand or to be held for a major accomplishment. Completion of small milestones deserves fanfare, too. After a positive progress review meeting, a manager can surprise his hardworking team with a cake (ok, sugar-free) with the members’ names and the words, “Thank you for being in my team!”

Are market pressures going down anytime soon? Are managers going to learn to temper their ambitions? I doubt it. But that’s no reason to make the workplace a living hell. It’s time to learn from the spas and say goodbye to the toxic workplace. Let’s be more attentive, affirming, and considerate while never forgetting to celebrate!