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How Can Complementary Therapists Make a Living?

by Robert Willmington(more info)

listed in clinical practice, originally published in issue 77 - June 2002

After completing training, the biggest challenge for most complementary therapists is to find a way to earn a living. Initially, for many it seems inappropriate to speak about a financial return as they feel that their work is seen as vocational, but we live in the real world and the financial investment needed to maintain commitment is an ongoing challenge for most. To complete an education in any of the complementary health disciplines can be expensive and time consuming but, unfortunately, companies who sell complementary health education do not often give business advice. The main stumbling block for the student who wishes to make a living or part-living from practising with their newfound qualification is the difficulty of finding enough clients. If you are thinking of embarking on any of the complementary health education courses with the aim of supporting yourself financially, I suggest that one major questioning line you should be asking before signing up would be, "What are my business-related prospects?", and once the training is finished, "Does your company offer any business advice to get me started?" You could also ask, "How many practising therapists do you have working in my area?" It is also a good idea to network with other therapists in your chosen field to find out their experiences.

What are the Options?

Working from Home

Making a good living from a career as a complementary therapist is not easy but it is possible for those who are willing to work at it. From the point of view of work opportunities, there are many. Often the first step for a therapist is to set up a treatment room within their home and advertise locally. This has varying degrees of success and can be quite an expensive way of doing things, owing mainly to the cost of advertising and competition. But for some it can work well.

Sarah Hurst is an independent therapist working from home, specializing in massage, colour therapy, colour analysis, kinesiology and reiki, and is now planning to open up her own holistic centre and retail unit in the west country. I asked Sarah how she got started:

"I began by offering massage at a gym. I then went on to open my own practice from home. At this point I felt I needed counselling skills so I studied counselling to advanced level and am now doing a diploma. I feel the more therapies you have to offer, the easier it is to run your practice from home. But even if you have only one therapy, the most important thing I have found is to get known. Word of mouth is usually a more effective way of getting new clients than advertising. I would recommend that anyone who does advertise starts small to see what works for them. I wasted a lot of money to start off with and found that local advertising in the health food shop and libraries was often the most successful and certainly the cheapest. For me the best way of getting known was to do exhibitions. The first ones I did were very small and local but I nearly always covered my costs and more importantly made a lot of contacts. These ranged from people who wanted to order products, book consultations for friends, ask me to talk to groups and attend future events. Groups like the WI [Women's Institute] are always looking for new speakers and will often pay expenses and a small fee. I approached complementary health centres and let them know what therapies I offered to see if any were interested. You need to persevere, as often the people organizing are very busy but I have found perseverance usually pays. I am also currently working in a health farm that works very well as there are new clients constantly arriving. This is a very different style of work as you do not tend to build relationships with clients in the same way you do by working at home. Sometimes doing voluntary work (which I have done with counselling) is not only rewarding but can lead to making new contacts and sometimes offers of work. I also offered reiki at a cancer centre which again was very rewarding and meant that even though I wasn't being paid I was having lots of opportunity to develop my skills and work with clients, helping to build my confidence."

Hiring a Room

An alternative to working at home is to hire a room within a health centre or clinic. The Panakeia Holistic Therapy Centre in London works with upwards of 32 therapists who pay an hourly rate for the use of treatment rooms. I talked to Philip Davies who has been a practising therapist for the last five years specializing in acupuncture and reflexology. He said he enjoys working at the Panakeia Centre and would recommend this style of working environment to others as it is a good way to build up a client base and is relatively cost effective, particularly if the centre has good promotional material. Philip recommended that before committing yourself to any one centre it is a good idea to have a look around at as many as possible so as to get an overview of what is available. While the position and look of a centre are very important, the commitment of the management and staff is vital. A good guide to this is how the receptionist deals with enquiries, as the front line often reflects the management attitude to way they promote their centre.

Working in a Spa

The spa industry is one of the biggest growing markets available to the complementary therapist. Most of the spas have complementary treatments available, with the majority of the therapists working on a self-employed basis. This works by the spa manager allocating the therapist specific times and working on an appointment system. To work in a spa it is necessary to have a great deal of commitment. You will be expected to turn up even if you only have one client booked, and it can take a little time to establish yourself with the spa clientele, especially if you are offering a therapy which they haven't had before. But over time it can work very well and the therapists I know who practise in spas enjoy the ambience of the spa environment and the professional approach that spa management have towards complementary treatments.

The Champneys group, which now has three high quality spas in the UK, is a good example of the holistic approach to which many aspire. Debbie Winlow from Champneys at Tring told me that complementary treatments are growing in popularity and she anticipates an increasing need for good quality therapists. At the moment, Champneys Tring offers 19 complementary and alternative treatments including acupuncture, Alexander technique, homeopathy, hypnotherapy, cranio-sacral therapy, and lifestyle counselling. If you are thinking of approaching a spa, I suggest that you do a little groundwork first by finding out the name of the spa manager and writing to him or her directly. It is not advisable to make your first contact by phoning, as they are generally incredibly busy people.

Demonstrations at Corporate Events

One of the most lucrative and fun ways to supplement your income as a therapist is to try registering yourself with a Corporate Events Agency. Over the last few years it has been fashionable for alternative and complementary therapists to be seen working at corporate events such as company Christmas parties and the launching of new products. The basic idea is that the therapist is employed to be available to talk to guests and offer a short example of treatment. Obviously, for this kind of work, some treatments are more appropriate than others. Relaxation techniques, Indian head massage and many of the alternative therapies work well in this forum. Some may think that these kinds of venues are not appropriate and could denigrate complementary health, but from my experience this type of work can be very worthwhile. The questions and interest shown by the people attending such functions are generally enquiring and stimulating and it can be an unusual and surprising way of making contact with the public. A good way to find corporate agencies is via the worldwide web.

Starting your own Business at Age 50-plus

If you are over 50 and are looking to start your own business as a therapist, you can take heart by the experience of Kathleen Lorna Colhoun who has been a practising yoga and colour therapist for over 23 years. She started her work in adult education and in the social services under the umbrella of occupational therapist. After being made redundant in May 2001 from a well-known therapy company where she had been working for the last 13 years, she has become a self-employed sole trader working as a complementary therapist and teacher. This has been made easier by help from her local unemployment office who suggested that she could take advantage of the '50-plus' scheme. This allows people who are aged 50 or over, and who have either been out of work for six months, or who are working for not more than 16 hours a week, the opportunity to work on a self-employed basis, for which they will receive up to £60 a week for one year. The scheme offers sound business advice and the possibility of grant aid for further training, with a potential for further grants for equipment (but these are determined by local authorities). So, if you are 50 plus and want to start your own therapy business, this is certainly worth investigating.

Teaching

Teaching a therapy can also bring its rewards if you market yourself confidently. There are more than a few British teachers who travel the world earning a good living from running courses. If you have a teaching qualification all well and good, but if you are intending to invest in further education to obtain such qualifications, it is a good idea to investigate the market beforehand because there does seem to be a glut of teachers in some therapies. Teaching at local colleges is a good way to get yourself started. They are always looking for new courses to run and they do all the organizing of students, etc. Another plus is that if the course doesn't run you are not out of pocket. To make a success of teaching you really must do the groundwork and network your skills. Alternatively, you could look for an agent to represent you.

Planning your Strategy

Except for teaching, I feel it would be difficult to make a living from any one of the examples above, but planning a working strategy utilizing two or three therapies could bring success. The importance of doing the sums and getting a little business advice cannot be emphasized enough. It is worth calling in to your local employment office to see if they have business advisers who you can talk to at no cost, as it can be an expensive exercise if you go privately.

Integration and Image of Complementary Therapies

But surely the most positive prospects for complementary health would be its inclusion within traditional health systems such as the NHS. However, there are many barriers to break down before there is a real integration of orthodox and complementary care. One of the main criticisms of complementary medicine is its lack of scientific evidence and credibility. In a few cases, this is understandable as we can all cite therapy systems that fall short in this area. But there are many forms of complementary medicine that are based on good observational and scientific research such as acupuncture, aromatherapy, hypnotherapy, osteopathy and most obviously Ayurvedic medicine, which is a governmentally backed treatment system in India.

All in all, I think that the complementary medicine field is making headway. It is said that some 40% of general practitioners are happy to recommend complementary therapies to their patients, while 20% offer these treatments on their own premises. One of the GPs who particularly stands out for me as an innovator in this field is Dr Peter Mansfield who I first met when I visited his surgery as an NHS patient almost 18 years ago. This had been my first real experience of the holistic approach to medicine. At the time I had been taking anti-inflammatory drugs for over two years, thankful for the relief they gave from my symptoms. On seeing Dr Mansfield for what I thought would be a repeat prescription, I was surprised to hear him suggest that I came off the medication and explore the reasons for my condition rather than masking it with the drugs. Within one week he had established that I suffered from a milk allergy and all I had to do to control the pain was stay off milk and milk products. The subsequent improvement to my physical health was quite astounding.

I have since realized that the holistic and complementary approach to medicine is totally misunderstood in many quarters. This is not only due to the lack of such things as research funding but also to the perceived image of the therapist by the general public. Patients and clients need to feel assured in what they see and hear. For example, some therapies carry with them an esoteric style of language, which, although familiar to those working in the field, can be unnerving for others. Dealing with the fundamentals of image has to be a priority if complementary health understanding is to grow in the Western world.

Comments:

  1. VIVIAN GANAKA said..

    Thanks for a well written, most informative article. I'm a 52 year old body worker. I love my work and I'm considering how to take my work to the next level


  2. Lesley said..

    Thank you for this article. I have started training as a Naturopathic Nutritionist for the next 3 years. I am 53 and want to have a new part-time career. It won't be plain sailing I know and I want to add coaching skills to help clients maintain change as well as breathing work.


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About Robert Willmington

Bob Willmington has been interested in holistic health for many years. For the past seven years he has worked as PR, Special Projects and Marketing Manager for an internationally known therapy company. For the 25 years prior to this he had his own company manufacturing bespoke furniture. He now works as an independent adviser and representative for alternative and complementary therapists and also works with therapy companies and associations as a PR consultant. Bob's main interest within the complementary health field is the well-being of the therapist and he works on a one-to-one basis as well as giving talks to help therapists to get established. He feels that the therapist often gets a raw deal, especially in consideration of both the emotional and financial commitment that they put into their work. Bob lives with his wife Phyllis Mahon, an artist and illustrator in their farmhouse in the Lincolnshire Wolds. He can be contacted on Tel: 01507 588 632; willmington@googlemail.com

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