Occupational therapists support people to overcome physical or mental challenges that affect their ability to perform everyday tasks. Their work focuses on improving lives through adjustments, planned therapies and tailored support.
What is an occupational therapist?
As an occupational therapist, your role is to help individuals overcome physical and mental barriers to accessing everyday activities. These could be work based activities, pastimes or caring responsibilities. The key is to learn about an patient’s condition, from a broken leg through to a mental health issue, and assess how interventions can support them to enjoy and thrive in their daily lives.
Occupational therapy is a regulated profession, and you need a degree to enter.
Occupational therapists usually work within the NHS, but can also work privately. They may be employed by an organisation to offer employees support with health conditions or illnesses, so that they can continue to perform their duties.
Your responsibilities as an occupational therapist will vary depending on where you work, and your level of experience.
Common duties include:
- Creating individualised treatment plans of recommended adjustments and interventions for people you work with - this could vary depending on the context you work in, though common recommendations include adjustments to work setups.
- Giving advice and guidance to an individual’s employer on their suitability to work, or any requirements on an employers part to make reasonable adjustments to an individual’s work set up, such as changing to working hours or conditions.
- Helping individuals access rehabilitation or support groups depending on their needs, sometimes in liaison with external organisations.
- Keeping up to date with updates to the profession as well as any continuing professional development required of you.
- Meeting individuals and getting to know their needs, conditions and overall goals - you will listen carefully to a person’s illness and symptoms as well as what activities they want to better access.
- Providing information, guidance and support to individuals who are experiencing an illness or illnesses that affect their everyday life.
- Retaining detailed records of any reports, recommendations and treatment ideas for each patient.
- Support return to work adjustments for individuals who have been off sick via liaison with employers.
- Working in collaboration with other healthcare, social care and employment professionals (where relevant) to create action plans for different areas of an individual’s life or to refer an individual for specialised interventions.
An occupational therapist salary will vary depending on whether you are employed by the NHS or privately.
NHS occupation therapists are usually on band 5 of the NHS Agenda for Change pay system. Band 5 payments range from £27,055 - £32,934. With time and experience, you could move up to more senior bands, especially if you take on managing responsibilities. If you reach band 6 in a specialised role, you could earn £33,706 - £40,588.
Occupational therapists working privately could earn more, though salaries will vary. The closer to London you are, and the larger and more established the company, the higher earning potential you have.
Occupational therapy is a regulated profession, and you need a degree to enter. You will usually need a degree in occupational therapy, though there is also an option to study a more broad healthcare based degree then go on to study occupational therapy in a shortened masters level course. Once you have graduated, you will need to register with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) in order to practice.
You could also take an occupational therapy degree apprenticeship route to becoming an occupational therapist. With a degree apprenticeship, you are able to work alongside studying and your fees are usually paid for by your employer.
Undergraduate and postgraduate occupational therapist trainees are eligible for an NHS grant. This is a non repayable amount of at least £5000 per year to support their studies.
Training and development
Your training to become an occupational therapist will largely be covered in your degree or degree apprenticeship study. This will cover the practical and theoretical aspects required to practice efficiently.
Prior to beginning your occupational therapy studies, you will usually need some shadowing or work experience in a related setting.
Once you have registered with the HCPC, you will need to undertake regular continuing professional development (CPD) to retain registration. This could include mentoring from a senior occupational therapist, shadowing, attending additional training courses and attending conferences. Many occupational therapists also join the Royal College of Occupational Therapists (RCOT), which provides further opportunity for personal development, networking and conference attendance. The RCOT also offers a variety of online resources for occupational therapists to support their practice.
Your skills as an occupational therapist combine practical knowledge, theory and excellent patient support.
Core skills of occupational therapy include:
- A strong understanding of the various health conditions that might limit an individual’s ability to complete everyday tasks, and explaining your plans to attain them, and the best practice to reduce their effects.
- An awareness of common adjustments that can be made to support individuals with health conditions.
- A good understanding of the field you work in, as well as liaising with multidisciplinary professionals.
- Excellent written communication for making reports and treatment plans to be used by various different professionals.
- Ability to work well in a team of multidisciplinary professionals, but you will also need to work collaboratively with other professionals to form a holistic service, employing managers and social workers.
- Good people skills - not only will you need a great bedside manner to work with service users, in various locations - such as doctors,or look into new techniques or strategies to support service users, or the common needs of individuals who wish to pursue a particular pastime or hobby.
- A calm and supportive attitude, so it’s vital that you work well with others.
- Research skills - you may need to look into conditions that you are unfamiliar with, such as the common requirements of employees within a particular organisation, to help patients who may have been struggling with accessing everyday activities for some time.
- Problem solving skills, to listen to various pieces of information from a service user and turn this into a well researched treatment plan.
- Ability to encourage and raise up patients who may have previously felt disheartened with their capacities.
- Excellent verbal communication skills for taking detailed information from individuals about their needs and goals.
Prior to beginning your occupational therapy studies, you will usually need some shadowing or work experience in a related setting. You could reach out to your local NHS trust to ask to shadow an occupational therapist, or do some research to find out if any large private companies near you employ occupational therapists that you could request to shadow.
If you can’t shadow an occupational therapist, observing healthcare or support service practitioners in any setting will still be beneficial. Private sector care settings are good places to observe medical or occupational care, such as care homes or social service departments.
As an occupational therapist, your role is to help individuals overcome physical and mental barriers to accessing everyday activities.
As part of your occupational therapy studies, you will gain practical experience of supporting individuals with supervision. It’s a good idea to maximise your time in placement settings, taking detailed notes and requesting any placements that specialise in an area of your interest. Some universities have occupational therapy societies, where you can meet and get to know other budding occupational therapists. These could help you access shadowing opportunities, or build up useful contacts for the future.
Your career prospects as an occupational therapist are good. Most therapists begin working within an NHS trust in NHS occupational therapy jobs, as there are plenty of opportunities for development within it. You could move from NHS bands 5 to band 6 or 7, taking on more clinical and managerial duties. You might choose to specialise in a particular area of occupation therapy, such as working in paediatric occupational therapy jobs.
You may even conduct your own research with the right level of experience. You could aim for publication in national journals such as the British Journal of Occupational Therapy.
There are also opportunities to move from the NHS to private occupational therapy jobs. If you have a particular interest within occupational health, you could search for employers taking on private occupational therapists to support their workers.
With the right level of expertise, setting up your own occupational therapy practice is also an option. You could employ other occupational therapists and build your own business.