Rage rooms, ax throwing and meditation: Stressful times demand new ways to blow off a little steam

Corporations have taken to off-site locations to give employees a place to shed their work personas, learn new things about their co-workers and challenge themselves at what’s known as “team-building” activities.

These have been around for a while, even in pop culture. Pam Beesly of “The Office” made an important discovery about herself by walking across burning coals in the “Beach Games” episode, for example. What’s new, though, is that companies that typically offer services from ax throwing to hypnosis are now catering to the team-building niche.

The trend is happening here in Northern Kentucky.

Mary Ellen Moore, owner of Synergy Holistic Health Center in Florence, helps groups of employees explore mindfulness, which can be a stress reduction technique, or provide activities to get in touch with workers’ creativity.

Moore recently taught a group of educators the basic techniques of mindfulness and meditation.

“They are then taking that back to their students and helping their students, in the classroom and out of the classroom, to be more self-aware so that they can manage themselves in these stressful times,” Moore says.

As the pandemic is nearly two years old, “obviously the whole world has gone into a state of fear,” Moore says. The mind can handle only so many challenges at once, and then it goes into overload. “We’ve all had to learn a whole new balancing system and whole new sorting of priorities on a subconscious level.”

Moore’s observations line up with the Household Pulse Survey on mental health conducted by the U.S. Government throughout the pandemic. As a baseline, the incidence of anxiety disorder averaged about 8% in 2019. It rose to over 30% early in the pandemic and is still in the middle to high 20s. Kentucky in September had 26% who identify with anxiety disorder.

Not far away in Florence is a more physical way to blow off steam and build camaraderie among coworkers.

Full Throttle Adrenaline Park offers go-karting at 40 mph, ax throwing, or 15 minutes in a rage room where your padded self can destroy glass vases, flat-screen TVs or knick knacks. Think of it as a way to vent anger or overflow stress or to just have fun making a mess without having to clean up.

Corporate team building is just part of the action at Full Throttle, but its managers say it’s satisfying to see employees bond, getting to know each better in a fun and sometimes competitive environment.

“For so many companies right now, it’s all about the culture, the company culture,” says Becky Vaughn, Full Throttle’s sales director.

“There are jobs everywhere. Companies are really trying to work to maintain the employees that they have. And part of that is sometimes going off site and just having some fun as a group,” Vaughn says.

“It’s been a rough 18 or 19 months” of the pandemic, says Full Throttle marketing director Rob Schoonover. Businesses are looking for ways to reward their employees. Full Throttle can make the experience as laid back or competitive as a company wants. For instance, one recent company said their team definitely wanted first, second and third trophies for go-karting set up in a “mini Grand Prix” format.

Heard the expressions “juggling many projects,” “spinning lots of plates,” or “climbing the corporate ladder”? Circus Mojo in Ludlow puts these concepts to literal use in its circus-oriented corporate workshops, says founder Paul Hallinan Miller.

“We really work with the company and put people into a couple different archetypes, if you will. There’s the clown, the juggler, and the acrobat,” Miller says. “Every company has people that do many different things really focused on opportunities to teach people to juggle, or spin some plates, or roll around in a giant wheel, or walk on a ball.

“So, it’s really something for everybody,” Miller says.

Eric Dustman, former head of school for The New School Montessori of Cincinnati, was delighted by a staff development in-service hosted by Circus Mojo a few years ago.

“With laughter, out-of-the-box thinking and encouragement, the Mojo team helped everyone develop greater rapport, trust and confidence in one another. The combination of circus tricks and activities created new partnerships and new possibilities,” Dustman says.

Molly Berrens, owner of Spotted Yeti Media in Covington, is another leader who was pleased by taking staff development off site. “We spent half of the day doing visioning and strengths training, in comparing what our individual strengths were and where we can improve as a team,” Berrens says.

In the afternoon, employees took to the bowling lanes at Newport’s Rotolo | Bowling Bocce Eatery. “We had a great time,” Berrens says. “I think it helps with overall team morale, and just an opportunity for stress relief,” she says.

Covington Clay founder Rick Hoffman agrees that corporate groups like doing an activity together that’s not inside the office and not work-related. That way, Hoffman says, “they get to know each other a little bit better in a different way. I would say it has less to do with (participants) cooperatively working together and more to do with just doing an activity that’s outside their normal range in the corporation or business.”

Classes for corporate groups take about two hours, less than students signed up for weekslong pottery projects. But in that time, they can select colors for something like a mug, and do the pre-firing creation. Later they can drink from it with pride at their desk.

A unique project developed by Zalla Companies, based in Crescent Springs, offered employees a weekend of family camping and fishing during the height of the pandemic. It wasn't just off site, it was way off site. At a private farm 30 minutes from Cincinnati, Zalla set up primitive campsites, each hundreds of yards apart. The company sensed how mentally taxing it was to feel stuck in your home for extended periods.

With everything shut down, this was “to go relax with your family for the weekend and we provided everything,” says Lara Gastright of Zalla, including firewood and breakfast and dinner provisions. In a letter to employees that summer, executives David Heidrich and TD Dierker wrote: “We are trusting that something always shifts inside of us when you step back and unplug for a while in the great outdoors.”