Occupational therapists help people with mental, physical or social disabilities to independently carry out everyday tasks or occupations.
They work with children and adults of all ages, whose difficulties may have been present since birth, or the result of an accident, illness, ageing or lifestyle.
Occupational therapists create individual treatment programmes to help people carry out their daily tasks and with more confidence and independence.
They may 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.
Occupational therapists review the treatments periodically, evaluate progress and make changes to the treatment as needed.
Occupational therapists work with a diverse range of people who all have different needs. Their aim is to understand each person's requirements and lifestyle so they can create the best treatment plan for them.
The work an occupational therapist carries out may include:
- advising on specialist equipment to assist with daily activities;
- developing a rehabilitation programme to help rebuild lost skills and restore lost confidence;
- advising on home and workplace environmental alterations, such as adjustments for wheelchair access;
- teaching anxiety management techniques;
- assisting people to return to work;
- coaching people with learning difficulties or poor social skills, e.g. in handling money and social interaction;
- mentoring people on how to control their own behaviour;
- liaising with other professionals, such as doctors, physiotherapists, social workers, equipment suppliers and architects, as well as patients' families, carers and employers;
- writing reports and attending multidisciplinary case meetings to plan and review ongoing treatment;
- organising support and rehabilitation groups for carers and clients;
- training students and supervising the work of occupational therapy assistants;
- managing a caseload, prioritising needs, and completing administrative tasks such as patient and budgetary records.
Jobs in the National Health Service (NHS) are covered by the Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates.
- Occupational therapists beginning their career as allied health professionals in the NHS typically start at Band 5 (£21,388 to £27,901), moving to occupational therapist specialist (Band 6, £25,783 to £34,530) and then occupational therapist advanced (Band 7, £30,764 to £40,558). To progress up each pay scale, staff must demonstrate that they can effectively apply the required knowledge and skills.
- Consultant occupational therapists can earn between £63,000 and £79,000.
Salaries in local government are at similar levels, although there can be variations depending on skills and experience.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Occupational therapists generally work office hours, Monday to Friday. However, there are a number of posts, notably in mental health community services, acute hospitals, accident and emergency services and private practice, where evening and weekend work are more common.
Part-time, other flexible working arrangements and career breaks are possible.
What to expect
- Applicants for entry-level positions may need to be flexible about the geographical area in which they are willing to work.
- Occupational therapists work in a wide variety of settings, including hospitals, community facilities, schools, businesses, prisons and people's own homes.
- Some areas of work may be stressful 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 British Association of Occupational Therapists and College of Occupational Therapists (BAOT), which facilitates employment abroad.
To practise as an occupational therapist 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 awaiting accreditation) by the College of Occupational Therapists.
Programmes combine both academic and practical elements. Approximately one third of the course (a minimum of 1,000 hours) is spent on placements under the supervision of qualified senior occupational therapists.
Students 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 the end of your training, you will be able to treat your own small case-load under supervision.
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. Applications for undergraduate degree courses are made to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).
Two-year accelerated postgraduate programmes are available to graduates of other disciplines. These normally last two years full time and lead to either a Postgraduate Diploma in Occupational Therapy or an MSc in Occupational Therapy (pre-registration). Search for postgraduate courses in occupational therapy.
You will need to demonstrate a range of skills that show your understanding of, commitment to and enthusiasm for a career in occupational therapy. Contact institutions direct as entry requirements vary between courses.
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.
You are 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.
You will need to complete a Disclosure and Barring Service check when applying for an approved programme.
UK students are usually eligible to have their tuition fees funded for full or part-time pre-registration undergraduate occupational therapy study.
For postgraduate study, contact your chosen institution direct as funding arrangements differ around the UK. Some institutions have a number of places which are NHS funded. If not, you will usually have to fund yourself, unless an employer is willing to support you financially through the training.
There may be additional ﬁnancial support available through the institution to which you are applying as well as:
- NHS Student Bursaries
- Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS)
- Student Finance Wales
- Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland (DELNI)
Assistance is also occasionally available through charities or grant-making trusts.
Candidates for both pre-registration courses and jobs need to show evidence of the following:
- communication and observation skills;
- the ability to think outside the box and work under pressure;
- decision-making skills;
- assessment and report writing skills;
- good creative and practical skills;
- the ability to work well in a team;
- the ability to persuade and motivate others;
- enthusiasm, sensitivity and patience;
- organising and planning skills;
- a flexible approach to work;
- the ability to explain, encourage and build confidence, and develop rapport with a range of people;
- computer literacy.
A driving licence is usually required for travel between hospital sites and to patient homes during the working day.
Relevant work experience is helpful in securing posts in more competitive areas of occupational therapy, such as paediatrics, after graduation.
Occupational therapists work in both hospital and community settings.
Within the National Health Service (NHS), the size of employing organisations varies greatly. Some of the bigger hospitals with regional specialist departments may have dozens of occupational therapists working across the hospital.
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:
- colleges and universities;
- residential and nursing homes;
- community centres;
- job centres;
- GP surgeries;
- charities and voluntary organisations;
- housing associations;
- industrial and commercial organisations (including equipment manufacturers and architects);
- government bodies.
Look for job vacancies at:
- British Association of Occupational Therapists and College of Occupational Therapists (BAOT) - job database available to members only.
- Community Care
- Health Jobs UK
- Local Government Jobs
- NHS Jobs
- NHS Scotland Recruitment
- Pulse Jobs
Specialist recruitment agencies such as Just OT also handle vacancies.
As a newly qualified occupational therapist, you will be able to access a variety of in-house training opportunities to enhance skills and knowledge. Regular clinical supervision, day-to-day support and training from senior occupational therapists are provided.
Newly qualified occupational therapists taking up posts in the National Health Service (NHS) may begin in rotational posts, providing the opportunity to gain experience in a range of specialties.
This could include working across a range of acute clinical areas such as:
However, it is also possible to go straight into your chosen specialism.
In order to remain registered with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC), you must carry out continuing professional development (CPD). This includes maintaining a record of your informal and formal learning, covering courses taken, work-based learning and your experience of delivering patient care.
The British Association of Occupational Therapists and College of Occupational Therapists (BAOT) provide support with CPD and members can access their Interactive Learning Opportunities Database (ILOD).
This has details of various short courses, workshops and study days and can also help to identify how informal opportunities can help will all levels of career planning. A mentorship scheme is also available through the BAOT.
Occupational therapists often have the opportunity to move between departments because the core skills and philosophy of occupational therapy remain the same, regardless of the field of work.
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.
Areas of specialisation include:
- alcohol and substance abuse;
- burns and plastic surgery;
- oncology and palliative care;
- trauma and orthopaedics;
- rheumatology and age-related conditions;
- stroke rehabilitation;
- work practice and productivity, including work-related and repetitive strain injuries;
- mental health;
- obsessive compulsions;
- learning disability.
With significant experience, it is possible to 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. This involves engaging in high intensity interventions, initially cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), with clients who have complex illnesses related to anxiety and depression.
It is also possible to work in related roles such as care manager within primary care, industry or business.