If you have a positive attitude and are good at motivating others, then occupational therapy could be the career for you

Occupational therapists help children and adults of all ages with mental, physical or social disabilities to independently carry out everyday tasks or occupations with more confidence and independence.

You will 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 will review the treatments periodically, evaluate progress and make changes as needed.

Responsibilities

As you work with a diverse range of people who all have different needs, you need to understand each person's requirements and lifestyle so that you can create the best treatment plan for them.

You'll need to:

  • develop a rehabilitation programme to help rebuild lost skills and restore confidence;
  • 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;
  • liaise with other professionals, such as doctors, physiotherapists, social workers, equipment suppliers and architects, as well as patients' families, carers and employers;
  • write reports and attend multidisciplinary case meetings to plan and review ongoing treatment;
  • organise support and rehabilitation groups for carers and clients;
  • train students and supervise the work of occupational therapy assistants;
  • manage a caseload, prioritising needs and completing administrative tasks such as patient and budgetary records.

Salary

  • Salaries for occupational therapists working in the NHS start at Band 5 of the NHS Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates (£21,909 to £28,462).
  • Salaries for specialist occupational therapists range from £26,302 to £35,225 (Band 6) and advanced occupational therapists can earn £31,383 to £41,373 (Band 7).
  • At consultant level you can typically earn between £40,028 and £57,640 (Bands 8a and 8b).

Salaries in local government are at similar levels, although there can be variations depending on your skills and experience.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

In the NHS, you'll typically do a 37.5 hour week but may be required to work flexibly 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 may 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 people's 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.
  • The World Federation of Occupational Therapists (WFOT) recognises qualifications accredited by the College of Occupational Therapists (COT), which is useful if you want to work abroad.

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. See the HCPC website for a list of approved courses.

All occupational therapy programmes available in the UK are also currently accredited (or being re-accredited) by the COT.

The 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 have 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).

Programmes combine both academic and practical elements. You'll gain experience in the main areas of occupational therapy and how to assess and treat patients. Study areas cover a range of subjects including biological and behavioural sciences. By your final year you'll be able to see patients on your own.

Search for postgraduate courses in occupational therapy.

Entry without a degree is possible at occupational therapy assistant, technician or support-worker level. It may be possible to progress to become an occupational therapist through undertaking an approved in-service BSc Occupational Therapy course with the support of your employer.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • communication and 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;
  • good creative and practical skills;
  • team working skills as you will often liaise with other professionals such as doctors and social workers;
  • enthusiasm, sensitivity and patience to deal with patients with a range of needs;
  • the ability to explain, encourage and build confidence, and develop rapport with your patients;
  • computer literacy.

Work experience

You're advised to visit an occupational therapy unit, within a hospital or social services, to gain an understanding of the profession before applying for a course. Contact your local hospital or local government social services department for more information on how to arrange a visit.

Work shadowing a qualified occupational therapist will provide an insight into the role. It may also be possible to speak to occupational therapists working in residential homes, homeless shelters or charities. Relevant experience of working in health, social care or a related area is also beneficial.

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

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.

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 COT provides support with CPD in the form of events, workshops and e-learning. They also provide access to a range of professional networks, for example regional and new graduate networks.

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.

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

  • the management of staff;
  • research into new techniques in occupational therapy or auditing the efficiency of current provision;
  • specialisation in particular areas of occupational therapy;
  • working in education, either training in a department or lecturing in an educational institution.

To progress up each 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 further training it is also possible to work as a high-intensity therapist as part of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service. It's also possible to work in related roles such as care manager within primary care, industry or business.