What Occupational Therapists Really Do

I went out for dinner with two close friends last night, and when talking about work one said “you’re a bit like Chandler from Friends.. No one really knows what your job is!”

I’ve been a qualified Occupational Therapist for over three years (and a MSc OT student for two years before that), and sometimes I still stumble when trying to explain what I do.


A simple definition would be – “I support people with health difficulties toward recovery with the use of meaningful occupation (activities)”. But in reality it’s so much more than that.

I remember one day a Health Care Assistant I’d worked with for a while was surprised to discover that I actually needed a degree to be an OT. His reflection “well you just play games with them and stuff?”.

And yes, there are occasions when I may play a game with a patient, but this is also called a leisure occupation, and necessary for health.

Not only that, but I’m not just playing with them. I assessing the following:
▪️Do they have the necessary fine and gross motor skills to participate?
▪️Can the sequence the activity?
▪️Do they demonstrate planning and timing?
▪️Do they have hand/eye coordination?
▪️How long is their activity tolerance?
▪️Can they retain and adhere to the rules of the game?
▪️Do they have appropriate emotional response to winning/losing?
▪️Are they supportive to other players?
▪️Can the communicate successfully (both verbal and non verbal)?
▪️Are they more likely to talk about difficult subjects while engaged in an activity, than in a traditional 1:1?
▪️Are they confident in making decisions?
▪️How does the environment influence their ability to engage in the activity?
▪️Do they experience side effects from medication which could impair their abilities?

These are just some of the things I’m looking at while assessing someone’s occupational performance. And if the session takes place in the community add in road safety awareness, public transport and money handling skills too.

All this information I put into clinical notes and reports. Plus I’ll feed it back in care planning and risk assessment meetings. Often the admin side of things takes significantly longer than activity itself.

From this I’ll develop a plan, in collaboration with the patient, to support them to develop in areas where they currently struggle and help them achieve what they want in life.

So in response to the Health Care Assistant who queried the need for a degree I wanted to scream “of course you need a degree to become an OT! In fact, I’ve got a masters!” But I didn’t, I just smiled and said “yes”.

OTs don’t become OTs for prestige. When you enter the profession you know very few people will know or understand what you do. You do it because you genuinely care about other people, and want to help in a way that really matters to them.

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24 thoughts on “What Occupational Therapists Really Do

  1. Roma Devan says:

    Great post! There are so many jobs in healthcare that aren’t properly understood by the general public (including me). It’s nice that you took the time to write this, because your work is important, and people should know that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • doingbeingbecoming says:

      Thank you for taking the time to read my post. It’s true most people probably don’t understand quite what different health care roles involve. Even though everyone’s heard of a doctor and nurse I doubt everyone knows what their job actually entails at times. Unfortunately most OTs are quite modest and we’re not very good at promoting ourselves and our services. But I think we’re starting to get better at letting people know! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • doingbeingbecoming says:

      It’s true – I don’t think people understand just how complex our assessments can be. And because they’re so complex it can be hard to explain in a passing conversation. Hopefully one day our expertise will be recognised, but at the moment I’m happy if someone’s even heard of OT! 🙈


  2. stgrundy says:

    My daughter is an OT (her younger sister is about to graduate from PT school) and I very much understand the lack of knowledge of these professions by the public. I’m afraid you kind of fall into the group of very important people that nobody knows about until you need them. You should be proud of how the work you do makes a difference in peoples lives! Now if they’d just pay you better for all you time, effort, knowledge and caring… You can always hope.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. withlovefromof says:

    Thanks so much for clarifying! I have a couple of friends who are also OT’s and I really didn’t just want to ask outright what it is they do, so I have been wandering around the world thinking that OT was somewhat similar to Physical Therapy. Thank you for doing the job you do, and having a passion for it. The world is better for having people like you in it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • doingbeingbecoming says:

      Thank you for reading and your kind words. It can be confusing as OT is quite a diverse profession – some roles are similar to PT, and often we work in collaboration with PTs. However, I work in mental health and that’s completely different to PT. So it does vary. The unifying concept is all OTs are working to enable engagement in activities which are meaningful to the individual, but the assessments and treatments differ depending on the setting. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. koolkosherkitchen says:

    I love your “simple definition.” I am sure it came from a textbook or a college catalog of majors. It’s a vague definition that contributes to misunderstanding of this vitally important profession, and your post has gone a long way towards educating the public and clarifying not only the duties and responsibilities, but also the goals and objectives of a qualified OT. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • doingbeingbecoming says:

      Unfortunately OT is such a diverse and complicated role that it’s almost impossible to have a simple definition for what we do. And this perpetuates the lack of understanding. Plus we’re often too modest to promote ourselves and our services – something we’re trying to change! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • koolkosherkitchen says:

        What you do is restore functionality. The problem is with total ignorance of what functionality is. If a patient can’t walk, it’s visible, so everybody understands what PT does – restores the ability to walk. But fine motor skills are generally viewed as clumsiness or inattentiveness, or lack or neatness, etc. I’ve heard it all, and more, when discussing intervention plans with parents. What needs to be promoted is not as much your services, but rather a need for them. As to a psychiatrist comment, what a fascinating paradigm shift! A hundred years ago, “talking therapy” was considered laughable, and now the tables have turned.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Joe Hupp says:

    Your simple definition makes it easy for those who are not aware of the role of an occupational therapist – OT’s are as important as speech therapists in the world…. I was meant to be undertaking speech therapy when I was younger but it would not have had any effect! By the way, I love this post – great insight from a practising OT

    Liked by 1 person

  6. preethishanbhag says:

    Hi, I totally agree with your post. As a psychiatrist, I often get confused for a nurse, psychologist or a neurologist!Most people believe that we are people who “talk”, as in cousel for a living! Graet to see you define your job profile and love for what you do so clearly!

    Liked by 1 person

    • doingbeingbecoming says:

      Thank you for reading. I think although everyone’s heard of a doctor and think they know what that means, very few people really understand what your job involves too. Which I imagine can be very frustrating. I also work in mental health and find psychiatrists almost always take the time to understand about OT, and really seem to appreciate what we do. Which is really nice 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Trail Tara says:

    Thanks for your great example, I’m a career counsellor and do struggle to explain what an OT does beyond the strict definition. I’ll use this next time I have to explain it to a client 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  8. missfloranze says:

    I have worked with a few OTs in the past and they are just wonderful people, I believe everyone plays their own important role i healthcare to make life better for the consumers. Well done, I am a critical care registered nurse btw, =)


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