Occupational therapist

Occupational therapists help people overcome the effects of disabilities caused by mental illness, physical injury or ageing, so they can continue to do everyday tasks and activities. This could include learning new ways of doing things or making changes to their environment to make things easier.

To work in the NHS, occupational therapists must be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).

Career story

Claire is an occupational therapist working in rehabilitation. Watch our video to find out more about her role.

I’m Claire and I’m one of the occupational therapists, currently working in rehabilitation. A rehab occupational therapist is somebody who works very closely with patients who have either had an impairment from disability or even just old age. This means that with their rehabilitation, we work with activities that are meaningful to that person. We can make adaptations to the home to help people live as independently as possible. 

I actually became an occupational therapist because I began to notice a decline in a family member's MS, multiple sclerosis. I began to see a few adaptations made to the house, and it started off with your kind of minor things like a grab rail or a stool in the kitchen, to the kind of more advanced things like a stand aid and a hoist. I began to notice the difference that the smaller things made to my family member and I thought, yeah this is a job that I can do, and then chose to study it at university and it’s probably the best thing I ever did. 

So, it’s a 4-year course, and within your 4 years, you do get 4 placements, which gives you a little bit of a taster for different environments you could be working in. Your placements last either 6 or 8 weeks but it’s a really good experience for students to get out and get a flavour for what occupational therapactually is. 

I think that you need to have quite a bubbly personality, you need to be really good with people. Have a bit of leadership as well. We do a lot of group work, so it is important that you’re able to educate your patients and you need to be very adaptable because not every day is going to be the same. 

It’s just such a rewarding job, it’s a very unique job and I just love working with people. 

Starting your career

Choosing subjects at school

To get on a course that could lead to a career as an occupational therapist, useful subjects include:

  • Human Biology
  • Maths
  • English
  • Psychology
  • Care

A Foundation Apprenticeship in Social Services and Healthcare, taken in S5 or S6, could help you gain new skills and valuable work experience.

Find out more about apprenticeships at apprenticeships.scot.

Work placement

If you’re at school or thinking of changing career, doing a work placement could help you when applying to college, university or for a job in healthcare. You’ll learn new skills, improve your knowledge and discover what it’s like to work in the health service. Find out how to apply for work experience with the NHS.

College and university

Most universities accept a wide range of qualifications, giving you the option of applying directly from school or going to college first.

At college, you could do an HNC in Care and Administrative Practice. With an HNC in Occupational Therapy Support, some universities may let you start your degree in year 2.

Widening participation supports adult learners who want to go to university. If you’re an adult with few or no qualifications, you can get into higher education through the Scottish Widening Access Programme (SWAP). Many universities also provide access programmes to help you get the degree entry qualifications you need.

Three universities in Scotland offer undergraduate programmes in Occupational Therapy, approved by the HCPC:

  • Glasgow Caledonian University
  • Queen Margaret University
  • Robert Gordon University

Pre-registration undergraduate programmes take 4 years full-time.

If you already have a relevant qualification and healthcare experience, you can do a master’s in Occupational Therapy. A postgraduate pre-registration course usually takes 2 years.

For more information on related further and higher education courses, search My World of Work. You should check specific entry requirements before applying.

The role

As an occupational therapist, you would care for people of all ages with different needs and goals, including:

  • improving a young person’s cognitive, physical, sensory, and motor skills needed for play, school and daily activities
  • providing equipment and adaptions, including ramps, stairlifts and rails so an older person can continue living at home

What you’ll do

Some of the typical tasks of an occupational therapist include:

  • advising on how to approach a task differently
  • helping patients to adjust to a permanent disability
  • using equipment or assistive technology, such as bathing equipment, chair and bed raisers or stairlifts
  • adapting the living or working environment
  • teaching patients how to dress themselves or other everyday tasks

Top skills

You’ll need these skills:

  • caring for people
  • communicating with people
  • problem-solving skills
  • working in a team
  • building relationships with people
  • persuading and motivating people

Who you’ll work with

Occupational therapists usually work in a team with other healthcare professionals, including:

  • physiotherapists
  • healthcare support workers
  • nurses
  • doctors

Working environment

You could work in:

  • hospitals
  • GP practices
  • health centres
  • a person’s home
  • a person’s place of work

Useful information

To work as an occupational therapist in NHSScotland, you’ll need to:

  • register with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC)
  • complete occupational health checks
  • join the Protecting Vulnerable Groups (PVG) scheme managed by Disclosure Scotland

Did you know?

There are around 40,000 registered occupational therapists in the UK and over 2,100 working in the NHS in Scotland.

Learning and development

The professional body for occupational therapists in the UK is the Royal College of Occupational Therapists (RCOT). You can become a member once you’ve qualified as an occupational therapist.

During your career, you'll have to keep your skills and knowledge up to date with continuing professional development (CPD). The RCOT provides courses, conferences and seminars where you can exchange ideas and update skills.

Career progression

As an occupational therapist, you could work in:

  • elderly care
  • physical and mental health settings
  • paediatrics
  • brain injury
  • learning disability

With further training and experience, you could progress to more senior or specialist roles.

You may decide to become a specialist in a particular area, such as supporting people with dementia, mental health problems or those receiving palliative care.

Occupational therapists also work as service managers in health and social care partnerships.