Occupational Therapist

The Job and What's Involved

Occupational therapy is about enabling people of all ages who have physical, mental or social issues to adapt to any aspect of their life with more confidence and control.

Occupational therapists work with clients in groups or on a one-to-one basis, devising treatment programmes that enable clients to achieve as much as possible for themselves.

Occupational therapists may work with people throughout their lives, including childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Therapists' involvement varies greatly according to individual needs.

Clients may include people who:

  • Have been affected in later life by conditions like Alzheimer's disease, arthritis or osteoporosis.
  • Have a physical disability, either from birth or from an accident or illness (for example, cerebral palsy, head injuries, strokes or multiple sclerosis).
  • Are affected by mental health issues, including anxiety, depression or eating disorders.
  • Have learning disabilities that affect their skills, such as reading, handling money or dealing with others.
  • Have difficulties with drug or alcohol use and are trying to control their own behaviour.
  • Are recovering from operations or other treatments to a part of their body (for example, hip replacements, spinal operations or burns).

Depending on the person's needs, occupational therapists may suggest strategies relating to:

  • Daily living activities like washing, having meals, shopping or using public transport.
  • Using equipment or making adaptations to the home or workplace to help with daily living or getting around.
  • Rediscovering or developing hobbies, leisure and social activities.
  • Coping skills like relaxation techniques, assertiveness (the ability to say 'no'), thinking positively or managing stress.
  • Social skills in relationships with other people, friends and family.
  • Work and study skills.

Occupational therapists work with a range of other professionals, including doctors, nurses, psychologists, physiotherapists, speech and language therapists, teachers, social workers and representatives from charitable and voluntary organisations. They also advise and support clients' families, carers and employers.

Occupational therapists usually work 37.5 hours a week. Most occupational therapists work office hours, Monday to Friday, but in some places, such as community mental health services, they may need to provide cover in the evenings and at weekends. Part-time work and flexible hours may be available.

Work settings vary and can include hospitals, residential homes, hospices, health or day centres, GP practices, schools and colleges, prisons, industrial and commercial companies and clients' homes.

Many occupational therapists travel between different locations.

Starting salaries in the NHS may be around £19,166. In the NHS, therapists working in or near London receive extra allowances.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are over 28,000 registered occupational therapists in the UK. Most are employed by NHS Trusts, local authorities (particularly social services departments), or amalgamated health and social care trusts (particularly in Northern Ireland). Other employers include voluntary organisations, businesses, residential homes, day centres and government bodies. Some occupational therapists are self-employed.

Recently, newly qualified occupational therapists, alongside nurses and other health professions, have experienced difficulties in finding posts in the NHS. It is likely this is a temporary situation. There are increasing opportunities in other sectors, and overall numbers in the profession are growing.

Vacancies are advertised on the British Association of Occupational Therapists' website, www.baot.org.uk, on the websites of NHS Trusts and local authorities or on the NHS jobs websites. Jobs may also be found in the British Journal of Occupational Therapy and in the local and national press.

Education and Training

To become an occupational therapist, it is necessary to complete a pre-registration programme in occupational therapy, approved by the Health Professions Council. For young people, the usual entry route involves a full-time BSc (Hons) degree in occupational therapy.

The minimum entry requirements for a degree course are five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3) with two A levels/three H grades, including at least one science at GCSE/S grade or A level/H grade. Biology, human biology or psychology at A level/H grade are useful subjects.

Alternative entry qualifications include the BTEC National Diploma, SQA programmes and the International Baccalaureate.

The College of Occupational Therapists (the professional body for occupational therapy) recommends that students follow a training programme accredited by the college, and become student members of the British Association of Occupational Therapists.

Alternative entry routes are available:

  • It may be possible to start as an occupational therapy support worker and, through progress to assistant practitioner roles, to qualify as an occupational therapist through in-service training.
  • Foundation degree in Health and Social Care may lead to entry to the second year of an occupational therapy degree, as can the HNC in Occupational Therapy Support (offered at Langside College, Glasgow).

Applicants need to show that they can get on with different kinds of people and have excellent communication and self-management skills. They should ideally have at least visited an occupational therapy department to find out more about the job.

Before their first placement, occupational therapy students will be asked to undergo a criminal records check. All students also have a health check.

A driving licence may be useful.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Full-time degree courses normally last three years, or four years in Scotland.

Approximately two-thirds of the course consists of academic study. The remaining third is spent on practice placements in some of the main branches of occupational therapy.

Occupational therapy graduates must register with the Health Professions Council before they can practise in the UK. They must renew their registration every two years and show that they have engaged in Continuing Professional Development (CPD).

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Occupational therapists should:

  • Be able to relate to and respect the people they work with.
  • Be good communicators, with the ability to persuade and motivate others.
  • Have a flexible and creative approach.
  • Show patience.
  • Be good at working as part of a team.
  • Be able to take decisions on their own initiative.
  • Have mental and physical stamina.
  • Have a sense of humour.
  • Be well organised.
  • Be able to write detailed reports and deal with paperwork.

Your Long Term Prospects

Promotion prospects are good, and may be possible to move into clinical posts, research, teaching or management.

Experienced occupational therapists can move into private practice, for example, assessing injuries that have resulted in compensation claims.

There are also opportunities to work abroad, especially in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA.

Get Further Information

British Association/College of Occupational Therapists,
106-114 Borough High Street, Southwark, London SE1 1LB
Tel: 020 6450 2336
Websites: www.baot.co.uk and www.cot.org.uk

Health Professions Council, Park House,
184 Kennington Park Road, London SE11 4BU
Tel: 020 7582 0866
Website: www.hpc-uk.org

Working in the NHS:

England: NHS Careers,
PO Box 2311, Bristol BS2 2ZX
Tel: 0845 606 0655
Website: www.nhscareers.nhs.uk

Scotland: NHS Scotland
Tel: 0845 601 4647
Website: www.nhscareers.scot.nhs.uk

Wales: NHS Wales Careers
Tel: 01443 233 472
Website: www.wales.nhs.uk

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