What is occupational therapy?

Occupational therapy (OT) is a science degree-based, health and social care profession, regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council. Occupational therapy takes a “whole-person approach” to both mental and physical health and wellbeing and enables individuals to achieve their full potential.

Occupational therapy provides practical support to empower people to facilitate recovery and overcome barriers preventing them from doing the activities (or occupations) that matter to them. This support increases people's independence and satisfaction in all aspects of life.

"Occupation" as a term refers to practical and purposeful activities that allow people to live independently and have a sense of identity. This could be essential day-to-day tasks such as self-care, work or leisure.

Think about your day-to-day life; would you be able to cope or live fully if you didn’t have access to the internet? Or couldn’t get out of bed in the morning? 

I wanted Maggie to come home, but I was not sure how I was going to manage. Her occupational therapist suggested using a telecare system which gives me peace of mind and means I can still go out and leave Maggie at home

Husband of a service user

Occupational therapists work with adults and children of all ages with a wide range of conditions; most commonly those who have difficulties due to a mental health illness, physical or learning disabilities. They can work in a variety of settings including health organisations, social care services, housing, education, voluntary organisations or as independent practitioners.

What do occupational therapists do?

Occupational therapists play a critical role in helping people of all ages overcome the effects of disability caused by illness, ageing or accident so that they can carry out everyday tasks or occupations.

Areas that occupational therapists work in include:

Children and young people

Occupational therapy can help babies, infants, children and young people grow, learn, have fun, socialise and play so they can develop, thrive and reach their full potential.

Occupational therapy enables people to participate in daily life to improve their health and wellbeing. Daily life is made up of many activities (or occupations). Occupations for children or young people may include self-care (getting ready to go out, eating a meal, using the toilet), being productive (going to nursery or school, or volunteering) and leisure - playing with friends or doing hobbies.

Learn more in our dedicated children and young people's section.

People with physical disabilities

Occupational therapy can help people with a physical disability, including those who may have undergone an amputation, to pursue daily activities and favourite hobbies.

When occupational therapists work with people with disabilities they focus on:

  • Enabling clients to function at an optimal level, despite barriers
  • How activities which the person needs or wants to do can be modified or adapted to make them easier
  • How clients feel about themselves and their ability to tackle problems
  • How the physical and social environment can be altered so that restrictions are reduced

People with learning disabilities

Occupational therapists support people with all types of learning disabilities to help them continue with life skills, work and leisure activities as independently as possible. They will:

  • Work with individuals, families and support workers so they understand the importance of taking part in everyday activities
  • Help people with learning disabilities to get involved in activities around the home, such as cooking
  • Help people to live independently
  • Encourage use of public transport so people with learning disabilities can access community facilities
  • Support people into mainstream voluntary work or employment
  • Support people to develop parenting skills

People with mental health issues

Occupational therapists help people to develop a personally satisfying routine of everyday activities that creates a sense of purpose and enhances the person's recovery journey. They will:

  • Help people improve their self-care, e.g. by supporting them to learn how to use washing machines or to cook for themselves
  • Help people manage their money by learning budgeting skills and how to use banks
  • Support people to live independently by providing systems to assist in dealing with, for example, mail and bills or negotiating with neighbours
  • Work with people to identify and improve work skills, apply for jobs and stay in employment
  • Help people to access and use mainstream leisure activities
  • Provide advice on how much assistance a person may need to live independently in the long-term

Older people

Occupational therapists can help older people to continue doing the daily activities that maintain their health and wellbeing and are important to them.

An occupational therapist can support social opportunities by:

  • Understanding the difficulties and working with the older person to find ways of having more social contact
  • Developing strategies to increase a person's confidence when meeting new people
  • Recommending equipment, such as a walking aid, so the person feels confident when out and about


An occupational therapist will consider all of the patient’s needs - physical, psychological, social and environmental. This support can make a real difference giving people a renewed sense of purpose, opening up new horizons, and changing the way they feel about the future.

An occupational therapist's skills lend themselves to new emerging roles, such as working with asylum seekers or refugees, working alongside police or fire services, or liaising with psychiatric services.