Dr Sally Payne, Children’s Occupational Therapist and Professional Adviser, Royal College of Occupational Therapists (RCOT), answers questions about a career in occupational therapy.
How can I know if occupational therapy is the right career for me?
Occupational therapy is the best career in the world and I’ve always found it fascinating. I often describe it as being a bit like a car mechanic. You take your car into the garage and say, ‘I’ve got a rattle’. The mechanic then has to figure out where the rattle is, what’s causing it and the best way to fix it.
We have to do the same but with people. People come to us because they want to do something but are finding it really difficult for some reason. We have to find out what is stopping them and then work out the best way to help them achieve it.
What does the work involve?
Our starting point is what the person wants to do or achieve. And then it’s about doing the detective work as to what motivates them? What do they do to look after themselves? How do they spend their time?
We have to use a whole range of knowledge about mental health, psychology, environment and anatomy, to understand what’s going on and what we can do practically to make a difference.
For example, I work with children. I might need to work with an autistic child to keep them safe but my starting point is always the family, their unique circumstances, needs and motivations. Or I might be working with a postnatally depressed mother and I would start by looking at what might be contributing to that.
For example, is her struggle to pick up her baby because of a caesarean wound infection and is that affecting her ability to bond with her baby? Would a taller change table or cot help?
Occupational therapy is sometimes the missing link that people don’t realise they need until they see it in action. I’m often told by parents ‘oh I didn’t know my child needed an occupational therapist (OT) until I saw the difference it made’.
An example of this is a group of students suffering with anxiety and depression linked to exams. The teachers and parents had tried talking therapies and creative therapies but these aren’t necessarily right for everyone.
What the OT was able to do was to identify the children who needed practical help in coping - ie setting reminders for themselves, sorting out their sleep hygiene, putting effective controls on social media for themselves.
It was a range of really practical interventions that stopped those problems escalating into crisis. That’s really important at the moment because we all know how stretched mental health services are in this country.
Where would I work?
OT’s work in a huge range of settings. In fact we cover the entire lifespan. You could be working in perinatal teams, with children, with working age adults, or end of life care.
You could be working in a hospital or a community team. You could have very specialist areas such as hand therapy. There are so many different options - how could you ever be bored?
What advice would you give someone considering a career in occupational therapy?
Occupational therapy roles are often in multi-disciplinary teams where sometimes you are the only OT. There’s currently a big expansion of occupational therapy roles in new areas such as perinatal care.
That means that you need a certain level of confidence and clarity about the value of the OT role and be able to articulate that when working with professionals who might have their own ideas about what an OT does.
This can sometimes feel a little isolating so it’s important to build up networks of support among other OT’s through the RCOT for example or perhaps in your local area.
Before making up your mind I would say the best idea is to spend time with occupational therapy teams and explore as many different areas of practice as possible. Often people are drawn to occupational therapy because they’ve experienced it in one type of setting or aspect.
But in your training you will experience a large number of different placements and roles which may not necessarily be in your chosen area. It's important to be prepared and open to that.
A great place to start is the ‘Small change, Big impact’ section on the RCOT website. OT’s from all different areas highlight the changes they’ve been able to achieve and it gives a great introduction to the role in all its many forms.
What’s been your occupational therapy career story?
I decided on occupational therapy as a career at a very early age. I was 14 years old and my Mum had a friend who was an OT. I really admired her. She was working with people and I could see she was making a real difference in their lives because she was so practical.
She was helping them cook and taking them out to do their shopping with them. That idea really stayed with me - that occupational therapy was about helping people live their best lives. I found that really inspiring.
I trained when I was 18 years old; qualified with a diploma and then topped it up as I went along with a degree, a masters and then a PhD. That’s probably something people wouldn’t necessarily consider - the academic side of OT but there are growing opportunities to be involved with research and it’s really important that people do so.
References and resources: