Occupational therapists provide practical support to help people overcome barriers caused by illness, trauma, disability, ageing or accidents that are preventing them from having an independent life

As an occupational therapist, you'll empower people to carry out everyday tasks or occupations with more confidence and independence in order to improve their health, quality of life and wellbeing. Tasks often relate to self-care, work or leisure.

You'll support a range of people, including:

  • babies, children and young people
  • people with physical disabilities
  • people with learning disabilities
  • people with physical or mental health illnesses or other long-term conditions
  • older people.

You'll create individual treatment programmes and suggest changes to the person's environment, whether that be at home, work or school, and may introduce the use of equipment which will help with some activities. You'll review the treatments periodically, evaluate progress and make changes as needed.

Responsibilities

As you'll be working with a range of people who will all have different requirements, you'll need to understand each client's lifestyle so that you can create the best treatment plan for them.

As an occupational therapist, you'll need to:

  • take a 'whole person' approach to each patient's physical and mental wellbeing by considering all their needs - physical, social, psychological and environmental
  • assess, plan, implement and evaluate treatment plans in hospital and community settings
  • establish realistic goals with the patient with meaningful outcomes
  • liaise with other professionals, such as doctors, physiotherapists, social workers, equipment suppliers and architects, as well as patients' families, teachers, carers and employers
  • keep up-to-date written and electronic records
  • write reports and care plans and attend multidisciplinary case meetings to plan and review ongoing treatment
  • refer patients to other specialists when needed
  • organise support and rehabilitation groups for carers and clients
  • contribute to the analysis, planning, audit, development and evaluation of clinical services
  • train students and supervise the work of occupational therapy assistants
  • manage a caseload, prioritising patient needs and completing administrative tasks such as patient and budgetary records.

Your client case load - whether you're working with the elderly, children, people with mental ill health or living with a disability - will dictate your specific activities. You may need to:

  • develop a rehabilitation programme to help rebuild lost skills and restore confidence
  • make sure that people are safe to leave hospital after an injury or illness
  • advise on home and workplace environmental alterations, such as adjustments for wheelchair access
  • teach anxiety management techniques
  • help people to return to work
  • advise on specialist equipment to help with daily activities
  • coach people with learning difficulties or poor social skills, e.g. in handling money and social interaction
  • mentor people on how to control their own behaviour.

Salary

  • Salaries for occupational therapists working in the NHS start at Band 5 of the NHS Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates (£25,655 to £31,534).
  • Salaries for specialist occupational therapists range from £32,306 to £39,027 (Band 6) and advanced/highly specialist occupational therapists can earn £40,057 to £45,839 (Band 7).
  • Salaries for senior roles, such as clinical/professional lead, clinical manager and consultant, typically range from £47,126 and £63,862 (Bands 8a and 8b).

Salaries in local government are likely to be at similar levels to the NHS. Salaries will vary depending on the type of employer, your location, skills and experience.

With experience, you may also choose to set up in private practice where there may be the potential to earn more. Success depends on range of factors including your skills, specialist areas, experience, location, contacts and entrepreneurial skills.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

In the NHS you'll typically work a 37.5 hour week, but may need to be flexible over a seven-day period. In private practice, you may work evenings and weekends to suit client needs.

Part-time and other flexible working arrangements are possible.

What to expect

  • You will need to be flexible about the geographical area in which you're willing to work when applying for entry-level positions.
  • You can work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, community facilities, schools, businesses, prisons and clients' own homes.
  • Some areas of work can be challenging and require physical and mental strength, flexibility and stamina.
  • Travel within a working day is common if you work in the community.
  • There are opportunities to work abroad as qualifications accredited by the Royal College of Occupational Therapists are recognised internationally.

Qualifications

To practise as an occupational therapist in the UK you must be registered with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC). In order to register, you must successfully complete an HCPC-approved pre-registration occupational therapy programme at either undergraduate or postgraduate level. Search the list of HCPC-approved programmes.

All programmes are accredited by the Royal College of Occupational Therapists (RCOT) and recognised by the World Federation of Occupational Therapists.

A full-time BSc in occupational therapy lasts three years (four years in Scotland), although part-time programmes lasting around four years are available at some institutions, usually requiring two days a week at university.

If you've got a relevant degree and some healthcare experience, you may be eligible for a two-year accelerated postgraduate programme leading to either a postgraduate diploma in occupational therapy or an MSc in occupational therapy (pre-registration). Check individual course providers for entry requirements.

Programmes combine both academic and practical elements. You'll spend a minimum of 1,000 hours on practice placements and will gain experience in the main areas of occupational therapy, and how to assess and treat patients.

Another option if you're based in England is to take an occupational therapy degree-level apprenticeship. Training is delivered by a number of universities in collaboration with partner organisations such as the NHS, social care organisations and other small and medium-sized companies.

Entry without a degree is possible as an occupational therapy support worker (also known as an occupational therapy or rehabilitation assistant or technical instructor), helping registered occupational therapists in their day-to-day work. It may be possible to progress to become an occupational therapist through undertaking an approved in-service BSc in occupational therapy with the support of your employer.

All eligible pre-registration undergraduate and postgraduate occupational therapy students studying at a university in England can receive funding support of at least £5,000 per year through the NHS Learning Support Fund. You don't have to pay it back and are still able to access funding for tuition and maintenance loans from the Student Loans Company. For more information, see Health Careers.

For details of financial support available elsewhere in the UK, see:

For more information on how to become an occupational therapist, see the RCOT's ChooseOT website.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • well-developed oral and verbal communication skills in order to develop a therapeutic relationship with your patients
  • interpersonal skills to connect with others and develop rapport with your patients
  • compassion and empathy
  • the ability to explain, encourage and build confidence
  • observation skills
  • the ability to think outside the box and work under pressure
  • decision-making skills and the ability to organise and plan your workload
  • a flexible approach to work
  • assessment and report writing skills
  • creative problem-solving skills
  • teamworking skills, as you'll often liaise with other professionals such as doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers and parole officers
  • enthusiasm, sensitivity and patience to deal with a range of needs
  • computer literacy.

Work experience

You're advised to visit an occupational therapy unit and spend time with a qualified occupational therapist to gain an understanding of the profession before applying for a course. Contact your local hospital for more information on how to arrange a visit.

You could also try speaking to occupational therapists working in local social services departments, residential homes, learning and disabilities services, mental health settings, homeless shelters or charities. Independent practitioners in your area may also be able to help. Work shadowing a qualified occupational therapist will provide an insight into the role.

Experience of working in health or social care or for a charity in either a paid or voluntary role is also beneficial.

Relevant work experience is helpful in securing posts in more competitive areas of occupational therapy, such as paediatrics.

Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.

Employers

Within the NHS, some bigger hospitals with regional specialist departments may have dozens of occupational therapists. Smaller trusts or local authority departments may only employ a handful of occupational therapists.

Occupational therapists in local government work in social services units and in the community, visiting people at home to assess their needs for independence and care.

Other employers include:

  • schools
  • colleges and universities
  • residential and nursing homes
  • community centres
  • job centres
  • GP surgeries
  • prisons
  • charities and voluntary organisations
  • housing associations
  • industrial and commercial organisations (including equipment manufacturers and architects)
  • government bodies.

You can also set up in private practice and run your own business. As an independent occupational therapist, you can have a free profile listing in the RCOT Find an Occupational Therapist Directory.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies such as JustOT also handle vacancies.

Professional development

As a newly qualified occupational therapist, you can access a variety of in-house training opportunities to enhance your skills and knowledge. Regular clinical supervision, day-to-day support and training from senior occupational therapists are provided.

In order to remain registered with the HCPC, you must carry out continuing professional development (CPD). This includes keeping a record of your informal and formal learning, covering courses taken, work-based learning and your experience of delivering patient care.

The RCOT provides support with CPD in the form of events, workshops and e-learning. They also provide access to a range of professional networks, as well as professional indemnity and public liability insurance up to £10million.

Career prospects

As a newly qualified occupational therapist in the NHS, you may begin in a rotational post, providing the opportunity to gain experience in a range of specialties. This could include working across a range of acute clinical areas such as:

  • medicine
  • orthopaedics
  • surgery
  • stroke
  • cardiac.

However, it's also possible to go straight into your chosen specialism, for example alcohol and substance abuse, burns and plastic surgery, mental health or stroke rehabilitation.

You can also specialise in particular areas of occupational therapy such as:

  • people with learning disabilities
  • work
  • children, young people and families
  • older people
  • housing.

You don't have to remain in the same specialism throughout your career and can change your job role as you develop your experience and interests.

There are other ways in which you can develop your career, for example through:

  • the management of staff, including other occupational therapists, support workers and trainees
  • research into new techniques in occupational therapy or auditing the efficiency of current provision
  • working in education, either training in a department or lecturing in an educational institution.

To progress up the pay scale, you must show that you can effectively apply the required knowledge and skills.

With significant experience, you could become a consultant occupational therapist in a senior clinical leadership role with the highest level of clinical responsibility. Consultant occupational therapists work in a range of clinical practice areas, including mental health and learning disabilities. They have a wider role in influencing and driving strategic and organisational development.

With experience you could also choose to set up and run your own practice. There are also opportunities to work overseas.

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