Lisa Leeper was not hard at work.

Instead, the admissions coordinator at a long-term rehab center relaxed in a comfy swivel chair at Bernard's Salon & Day Spa in Marlton while a hairstylist straightened her black locks with a hot iron. Then, she moved a couple of stations over for a French manicure.

Not a bad way for Leeper, 39, to spend a workday afternoon. After all, the Mount Laurel woman deserved to be pampered. For a year of work well done, this was her bonus: a few hours of being fussed over.

In a limping economy, year-end bonuses are being replaced by creative alternatives that both save money and boost employee morale.

For many, a spa day - about $120 a person at Bernard's for a group of 15 - is a compromise that acknowledges employees without breaking the company bank, bosses say.

"It's definitely more economical," said Patricia Chiorello, regional marketing manager for five CareOne facilities in South Jersey, including the one where Leeper works. "Individual bonuses would be a lot."

She wouldn't divulge the exact amount, but said gift cards to her team of administrative and marketing staff in the past have totaled more than the cost of the spa day.

Vince Frankowski, owner of Swanky Bubbles Restaurant & Champagne Bar, expects to save a few thousand dollars on individual bonuses by offering a spa day to his Cherry Hill staff of 20 to 25. Usually, he would give a waiter $25 to $50 extra and a manager $500 to $1,000, he said.

"In an effort to cut some costs, we decided to go in this direction," he said of the spa. "We want to make sure they're rewarded for a long year of hard work."

Leeper, like most of her coworkers, said she favored the spa treatments compliments of CareOne over actual greenbacks.

"It seems fair. The cash would probably not go to me," said the mother of teenagers. "I prefer this. I'm getting a treatment for me."

Nearby, Esther Kane, 30, of Bensalem, got highlights.

"It's a great perk," said Kane, who works at CareOne's Harmony Village in Moorestown, a facility for those with Alzheimer's and dementia. "It's relaxing. It's a great way to take off the stress of our stressful jobs."

While bottom-line concerns make a spa day attractive, employers said they like the option for other reasons as well.

"We wanted to offer something to the staff that they wouldn't normally do for themselves," Chiorello said. "It's a nice way to get together, to network and socialize. Everyone is caught up in the day-to-day work; they don't take time to get personal.

"You can't get much more personal than sitting next to someone with foil in your hair," she said.

Nationally, bonuses have taken some wallops.

A Society for Human Resource Management survey of its members in October found that half of 446 respondents expected to cut employee bonuses if "the current financial challenges to the U.S. economy continue."

"Cash bonuses are more challenging for more and more companies," said Jennifer Schramm, manager of workplace trends and forecasting for the society. "At this part of the recession, people are really starting to think about these issues."

Kelly Voss, of human-resources consultants Watson Wyatt, said that even in tough times - perhaps especially in tough times - employers want to keep workers motivated and engaged. "I do think we'll see an increase in those types of [alternative] programs as people get more creative with less."

A spa day, for example, "is a fairly low-ticket item that employees really do appreciate. I certainly would love that," she said.

The staff at Garber Plastic Surgery in Voorhees expects to see a significant reduction in year-end bonuses, said Stacie Owens, patient care coordinator. To soften the blow, staff members were treated to a spa day in the fall, she said.

"It's bonding, rather than just giving everybody a check," she said. "In the end, it makes you want to work harder. You're refreshed for the week."

Bernard's started marketing a corporate spa day at its Marlton location about a year ago. The package includes two choices of services, catered hors d'oeuvres and wine, and a pretty gift bag with sample products and a $50 Bernard's gift certificate. Highlights and a cut at Bernard's would cost about $160. Express facials start at $50; a body massage, at $60.

Enough businesses have signed on that the salon closes to the public on Tuesdays, said Carla Ciociola-Toppi, Bernard's marketing director.

Some early skeptics have found overflowing sign-up sheets, she said. One company has held four sessions. "It's more like a social hour," she said.

Does a spa day end up excluding male employees?

Not necessarily. "A few gentlemen have come in," Ciociola-Toppi said. "Some of them get massage facials or haircuts." But in general, Bernard's corporate clients tend to employ women.

On this day, about two dozen women chatted as they got their nails done or their hair colored. Some chose peaceful facial massages; others, indulgent pedicures. A spread of food whetted appetites.

Kristen Bednarcik, 31, of Mount Laurel, a hospital liaison, rested on her back in a private room lit by candles as Randi Freedman, an aesthetician and makeup artist, applied a scented, warm towel to her face.

"Oh my God, that feels so good," Bednarcik said, eyes closed.

"It just helps all the stress melt away," Freedman said, soothingly.

Half an hour later, Bednarcik was mingling with coworkers.

"It was awesome," she said, "so relaxing. I want another one, like now."

Contact staff writer Lini S. Kadaba at 215-854-5606 or Lkadaba@phillynews.com.