What is Occupational Therapy (OT)?

What is Occupational Therapy (OT)?

What is occupational therapy? Occupational therapists get asked this question regularly. For those who have heard of the profession they either think occupational therapy is stuck in our historical past, still basket weaving or occupational therapists only help people get dressed. Whilst both are potentially true, occupational therapists are so much more than many people think.

“Occupational therapy covers birth to death, waking and sleeping hours”. This is a standard line when beginning to explain what occupational therapists do, but it often leads to varying questions. Hopefully this blog will assist the reader in understanding this elusive profession. 

Occupational therapy in the UK is a degree course or a post-graduate masters course, with the USA recently increasing their requirements to practice to being a doctorate or master’s degree. Countries worldwide fall within this range of requirements to be able to practice as an occupational therapist. The profession is practiced in 72 member countries according to the Word Federation of Occupational Therapy (WFOT), with other countries practicing, but not registering with the WFOT. By not registering with the WFOT the courses in these countries are not recognised worldwide, nor are they accredited by WFOT. Thankfully courses in the UK are accredited, meaning occupational therapists can work in other accredited countries using their protected title.  

So, what do occupational therapists actually do and why is it called “occupational therapy”, if it isn’t necessarily to do with work? Well, the term “occupation” refers to activities people do that occupy their time both in the community, as groups or families and as individuals. These activities are things that are completed for fun and joy, plus activities that are required (for example; going to work), bringing meaning into people’s lives. Consequently, occupational therapy is very person-centred or individualistic, which may explain why not many people understand what occupational therapists do!

Occupational therapists work in a variety of settings

Example areas of practice and occupations covered within them.

Area of Practice Example occupations covered
Paediatrics Processing disorders, school work and fine motor skills, plus access to play.
Mental Health Access to work/school and the community, cooking, self-care such as washing and dressing, plus hobbies. 
Orthopaedics Getting in/out of bed or on/off chairs and toilets, dressing/undressing, plus bathing/showering.
Pain Management Pacing activities, adapting cooking and cleaning, work support, sleep posture and hygiene, intimacy plus relaxation skills.

Now many would argue from reading that list and clicking on the links, that everyone needs occupational therapy, which is true to a point. Others may say that no-one needs occupational therapy because bathing, for example is easy and obvious how to complete. However, if you have completed something in a certain way for your whole life and you then have an accident resulting in chronic pain or traumatic brain injury, for example you change, but your environment doesn’t. So, ask yourself, if you cannot climb the stairs because you are left exhausted when you reach the top, or you are left confused about what is expected of you when you go to the bathroom because of your head injury – do you need help? Do you need adaptations? Do you need advice? 

Occupational therapists often get involved when a change has occurred or a difficulty has been identified. This often results in people struggling to manage. This may be because people are unaware of the profession, or sadly the requirements for an occupational therapist to become involved are not met. Criteria for occupational therapy intervention varies dependent on the area of practice. Here are two links; an example of a referral criteria for children’s services in one NHS trust; and a general way to receive NHS occupational therapy input in the community

To read more about what occupational therapy is and gain a more complex understanding of the profession, please click on the link below to view an interactive newsletter. 


Written by:

Deborah Abson

I am an Occupational Therapist with experience of working in Paediatrics, Pain Management and Orthopaedics. I am passionate about my profession having completed interactive newsletters, posters, speaking at conferences, radio interviews and organising a conference. This website is my progression with all of this, with the hope of reaching a wider audience through the use of educational blogs, whilst providing an easily accessible and affordable service to those in chronic pain.

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