Posted by: ayrshirehealth | October 2, 2013

Occupational What? by @aileenahpmh

I’m not really sure what an OT is.

A phone call home from my eldest daughter who recently left home to begin life as a student has left me reflecting on why people struggle with the concept of Occupational Therapy (OT).  Occupational therapy 2My daughter had mentioned a new friend she had met who was studying Occupational Therapy.  Apparently when she informed her that her mum was an OT the girl said “great! at last someone who knows what an OT is!”  However my daughter’s response was a bit of a surprise, “I’m not really sure what an OT is!”.  I couldn’t believe it, she had grown up surrounded by Occupational Therapists and she still wasn’t confident she knew what it was all about!

 Hence the blog……

The college of Occupational Therapy provide the definition of Occupational Therapy as: 

Occupational therapy empowers people to reach their full potential, achieve their goals, and enjoy life to the full.

“Occupation” refers to practical and purposeful activities that allow us to live independently and give us a sense of identity. This could be anything from essential day-to-day tasks, such as dressing or cooking, to the things that make us who we are—our job, interests, hobbies and relationships.

Occupational therapy provides practical support to enable people to overcome any barriers that prevent them from doing the activities that matter to them, and helps to increase people’s independence and satisfaction in all aspects of life. 

– See more at:

Enable people to overcome barriers

Key words for me in this definition are, empowers people, supports people to enjoy life to the full, is practical, enables people to overcome barriers, activities which matter to the individual, independence and satisfaction with all aspects of life.

Occupational therapyOccupational Therapists place a high value on relationships. Relationships which explore the detail which underpins a person ability to live the life they wish to live, whilst being careful not to assume what is important to a person. Significant is the person’s strengths and potential to be independent in an activity. Focus can be about living safely at home, engaging in interests and hobbies, or any aspect of a person’s activity throughout each day and is always mindful of an individuals aspirations, for example, perhaps to return to work.

We “don’t do for, we do with”

Maybe it is a bit confusing what an Occupational Therapist does because how we do it, where we do it is unique to each individual, their talents and passions and is underpinned by a belief that maximising a persons physical and mental health lies in their Occupation.

So, what is Occupational Therapy? It’s practical, unpredictable, can be misunderstood, and often looks easy; after all it involves everyday activities. We “don’t do for, we do with”.  We listen and watch and make suggestions on how a person can achieve something.  Occupational therapy 1Perhaps we raise insights into the value of doing activities which are meaningful because the alternative is bad for your physical and mental well-being.  We work as a team to support the approach of enablement and activity which is good for health.  We strive to understand the detail involved in every activity and the solutions to overcoming the barriers in carrying out an activity.

In conclusion I guess the values of the profession encourage people to believe they have the power to improve their lives…themselves….through occupation.  Sustaining recovery through doing the activities which are important to them.

Maybe I can understand why it’s difficult to grasp the concept of Occupational Therapy, even for family and colleagues.  Maybe I can understand why some people just want someone to do the difficult tasks for them or carers step in when they see someone they care for struggle and just maybe that’s okay sometimes?  However, what I definitely understand is the value of meaningful occupation, and the passion I hold for an approach which has been built on the successes of people who in spite of significant physical and mental health difficulties have battled to live their life the way they wanted to live it….with a few minor adjustments.’s me doing all the work

Finally a favourite “patient story” illustrates the irony (and the frustrations) of an Occupational Therapy role and involves a person I’m still in awe of due to their attitude and achievements.  It was a remark after what was an extremely challenging session which left the person feeling a mixture of relief and exhaustion.  In the middle of arranging a time for the next session, which he was probably already, not looking forward to, he remarked (smiling!) “What exactly is your job Aileen, because as far as I can see its me that’s doing all the work!”…..?!?!?!?!.

This week’s blogger @Aileenahpmh is principal Occupational Therapist in mental health, NHS Ayrshire & Arran

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  1. Aileen, thank you for your passionate, informative blog this morning. It’s brought tears to my eyes for two reasons. firstly, the passion you  feel for your profession  and secondly the humaness of the philosophy underpinning OT. it feels to me,so many health professions still have us focussed on doing to, rather than for. There is so much to be learned from mental health professionals, who support & encourage patient/clients to do for themselves. As our health services struggle to keep up with ever increasing demands, how much could be achieved if we all could assume the paradigm shift you describe here?  And how empowering would it be to us, our friends, our families & our neighbours  utilising our NHSA&A services?   I began in and returned to  mental health thirty years later. And  in-between experienced lots of examples of the chaos, over-medicalising, inefficiency and helplessness created in  prevailing health systems as over-worked, over-stressed committed teams tried to do more & more “to”.   Thank you, Aileen for reminding me why I felt so at home within mental health services and the new found understanding of why I’ve always loved being around OTs “Empowerment”. 

  2. The trouble with OT being difficult to define is it’s not about what we do, it’s about what we believe. It’s about the worldview and philosophy, thinking and reasoning, values and priorities that underpin our work with people and their needs around health and happiness. And that inevitably comes across as woolly and airyfairy when we try to explain to people what it is we do.

    What we do can’t be defined easily because it’s too diverse across all the different clinical specialisms, never mind all the different individual clients we might work with.

    Maybe we need to stop trying to come up with a conventional definition of what we DO, and embrace a definition of what we ARE – practitioners of a philosophy that understands health and wellbeing as being inextricably linked to occupation – not practitioners of a definable set of treatments and interventions.

  3. […] Occupational What? by Aileen Fyfe on the Ayrshire Health blog […]

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