Ice baths have been ritualistic for a long time. In Japan, Shintoists rinse themselves in cold-water shrines at the beginning of each new year. In Eastern Europe, Christians kick off January’s Epiphany feast by soaking in rivers that are believed to hold special restorative properties.
All across the world — from Minnesota, arguably the polar plunge capital of the world, to Germany, where ice bath clubs with names like “Rostocker Seehunde” and the “Polar Wolves” swim in the Baltic Sea — people gather to brave unthinkable temperatures and chatter their way to a renewed sense of purpose and self.
Long inherent to these rituals, though, is their infrequency — they only occur when the water is at its coldest, generally correspond to a special time of the year…and sometimes even require lugging a pickaxe to a lake.
That sensibility has seen a seismic shift in recent years as the widely-purported benefits of cold-water therapy have ushered in legions of disciples. Adults are now jumping into (or bathing in, or showering in) bone-chilling water every single morning, in a quest for mental clarity, a better mood, a robust immune system or all the above.
Now, bizarrely (though something about this feels inevitable and utterly unsurprising) the trend has reached the business world. Various locations have been dubbed “the new power lunch” over the years, from Australian brekkie chains to CrossFit studios. For a certain cross section of professionals, the ice bath is the next frontier.
In a recent article from The New York Times, executives report preferring to address workplace challenges after “[spending] six minutes in icy cold water, breathing through the pain.” At nouveau social wellness clubs, like BIÂN, Remedy Place and Bathhouse, executives are able to catch up, exorcise the demons of a flubbed deal, and even interview job applicants…all while submerged in 40-degree water.
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These events — and the other trappings they bring: vitamin C-infused IV drips, sound baths, foot rubs — have proved to be a welcome replacement for work drinks, it would appear. With people feeling rundown over the last few years, yet still craving companionship, a dip in freezing water can prove refreshing and productive, while too many pints at a a pub near the office could lead to gossip and a round of hangovers.
Still, it’s fair to ask whether the offbeat meetings are as inclusive or appropriate as the managers scheduling them imagine them to be. What if you’d rather not strip down to a bathing suit with your boss? What if the idea of cold-water therapy sounds like torture to you — no matter how many “studies” your coworker sends over Slack? Is it fair that some employees will miss out on company breakthroughs because they didn’t attend the ice bath brainstorm? And how self-selecting will the hiring process become when the interviewees are expected to sing for their supper in a self-care center?
Proponents of these places have called them “microcosm utopias.” That’s great — that sort of passion is valuable in trying to establish a longterm wellness routine. But as ice baths turn from ritualistic to regular, let’s remember that it was once enough to purify yourself in the ocean once a year. You shouldn’t expect your employees to do so a half-dozen times a quarter…even if it’s all on the company card.