Career Profile – Occupational Therapist

If you would like a job helping people this could be perfect for you. Occupational therapists help people overcome difficulties caused by physical or mental illness, an accident or the ageing process. They work with clients to help them lead full and independent lives and, where possible, prevent disability.

To do this job you will need to have a degree, or have completed a postgraduate course.

You will also need to have good working relationships with people. You will need to motivate clients who are disappointed or frustrated. You will also need to have patience, determination and a positive attitude.

The work

As an occupational therapist, you would often work with clients on a one-to-one basis and adapt treatment programmes to suit each person’s needs and lifestyle. Your work could include things like:

  • teaching an older patient recovering from a stroke how to dress themselves
  • encouraging someone suffering with depression to take up a hobby or activity
  • suggesting ways to adapt an office so that an employee injured in a car accident can return to work
  • helping clients adjust to permanent disabilities.

You would also keep notes about clients’ progress, and advise and support clients and their families and carers.

Some patients may have conditions such as motor neurone disease or multiple sclerosis, which means that they gradually become less mobile and more disabled. You would work with these clients to encourage a positive attitude, which can help them keep active for as long as possible.

With experience, you could specialise in an area such as:

  • burns or plastic surgery
  • cardiac or stroke rehabilitation
  • paediatrics
  • orthopaedics (spinal injury)
  • community disability services
  • mental health.

You could work with patients for several months or just for a few sessions. You would often work as part of a team of professionals, including physiotherapists, nurses and social workers.


You would usually work around 37.5 hours a week, Monday to Friday. Part-time work is often available.

You could work with clients at a variety of places, including hospitals, health centres, residential or nursing homes, GP surgeries, schools, in the client’s own home or at a workplace.

You may need to travel between clients, so it would help you if you were able to drive.


Salaries for newly qualified staff start at £21,388 a year. With experience, this can rise to between £25,500 and £34,500. Senior staff can earn up to £40,000 a year.

Figures are intended as a guideline only.

Entry requirements

To become a registered occupational therapist you will need to have a degree, or have completed a postgraduate course, in occupational therapy that is approved by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). See the HCPC website for approved courses and course providers.

Before you apply for a course, it is a good idea to gain some relevant experience or knowledge of the profession. You could contact the occupational therapy unit at your local hospital, nursing home or other health centre where therapists practise, to ask how you could get involved.

To do a degree in occupational therapy, you will usually need:

  • five GCSEs (A-C) including maths and English
  • three A levels, often including at least one science subject (biology may be preferred).

Check with individual universities for exact entry details as other qualifications, such as a health-related Access to Higher Education course, HNC or foundation degree may be accepted.

To do a postgraduate course you will usually need an honours degree in a related area plus previous healthcare experience. Course providers will be able to tell you which degree subjects they accept.

You can join the British Association of Occupational Therapists (BAOT) as a student or graduate. This gives access to research materials, networking opportunities and leads onto professional development options after qualifying. The BAOT website also includes details of course providers.

Another route into this career is to start as an occupational therapy support worker. With backing from your employer, you could work towards qualifying as an occupational therapist by completing an in-service degree course leading to state registration.

You will need to agree to background checks by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) when you apply for a course. See the DBS website for more information.

Training and development

As a student or trainee occupational therapist on an approved Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) course, you will study a range of areas including:

  • biological and behavioural sciences
  • creative programme development
  • care management
  • therapeutic interventions
  • practical and environmental adaptations.

You will spend time on practical placements, where you will work with clients under the supervision of a qualified therapist. You will learn how to assess and treat patients, and by the end of the course you will be managing a number of cases. On many courses you will have the opportunity to experience the main branches of occupational therapy, which are:

  • physical rehabilitation
  • learning disabilities
  • mental health
  • social care.

Once you are qualified, you will be encouraged to keep your skills and knowledge up to date. The British Association of Occupational Therapists (BAOT) and the College of Occupational Therapists run workshops and offer other resources to help you with Continuing Professional Development. Check the BAOT/COT website for details.

Skills, interests and qualities

To become an occupational therapist, you will need to have:

  • a creative and adaptable approach to work
  • the ability to design and develop individual treatment programmes
  • a sense of humour
  • good written and spoken communication skills
  • the ability to form good working relationships with a wide variety of people
  • patience, determination and a positive attitude
  • the ability to motivate clients who are disappointed or frustrated
  • the ability to understand and accept other people’s priorities and lifestyles
  • a practical approach to problem-solving
  • a high level of mental and physical stamina
  • a strong desire to help people.

More information

Health and Care Professions Council (Opens new window)
Park House
184 Kennington Park Road
SE11 4BU
Tel: 020 7582 0866

NHS Careers (Opens new window)
PO Box 2311
Tel: 0345 60 60 655

British Association of Occupational Therapists/College of Occupational Therapists (Opens new window)
106-114 Borough High Street
Tel: 020 7450 2332 (Careers Info)

Health Learning and Skills Advice Line (Opens new window)
Tel: 08000 150850


The main employers are the NHS and local authority social services.

With experience, you could progress to senior clinician or head of occupational therapy services in the NHS. You may also be able to move into general health or social services management.

Another option is to go into private practice, education or research. UK qualifications are recognised by the World Federation of Occupational Therapists (WFOT), which means that you can also work abroad.

Related industry information

Industry summary

The health sector is represented by Skills for Health Sector Skills Council, which comprises three sub?sectors:

  • National Health Service (NHS)
  • Independent Healthcare Sector (such as private and charitable healthcare providers)
  • Third Sector (healthcare) (such as small local community and voluntary groups, registered charities, foundations, trusts, social enterprises and co?operatives)

The health sector is made up of hospitals, doctors’ surgeries, dental practices, the ambulance service, nursing homes, residential care homes, complementary medicine and a huge range of other health related activities, from sight tests in opticians to research in medical laboratories. Most people in the health sector work in the publicly funded National Health Service (NHS), which includes:

  • primary care (organisations which the public goes to first) – Doctors/General Practitioners (GPs), NHS Walk in Centres, NHS Direct, Out of Hours Emergency Care
  • secondary care (organisations which the public are referred onto) – Ambulance Trusts, NHS Trusts/hospitals, NHS Foundation Trusts/hospitals, Mental Health Trusts, Care Trusts (provide joint health and social care activities)

NHS policy in England is directed from the centre by the Department of Health. Local organisations, known as Primary Care Trusts (PCTs), are in charge of providing and commissioning services, controlling the majority of the budget. PCTs are overseen by 10 regional organisations called Strategic Health Authorities (SHAs).

The independent sector includes companies and charities that offer hospital and specialist services usually after referral from a doctor. Operations and other work are carried out in private hospitals, independent treatment centres, mental health units and hospices.

Key facts:

  • The health sector is the largest employer in the UK, representing 5.5% of the working age population of the UK and 7.3% of the working age population that are currently in employment.
  • It is estimated that the sector employs over 2 million people, including:
    • over 1.5 million people in the NHS (72%)
    • over 0.5 million people in the Independent Healthcare sector (26%)
    • almost 40,000 in the voluntary sector (2%)
  • 56% of the workforce has a higher education qualification (or equivalent).
  • The age profile for the sector shows an older than average workforce, which is due in part to the fact that it takes some professions a long time to train and can mean that people enter the sector later.

There is a varied list of jobs in the sector ranging from a diverse number of clinical roles, to support and infrastructure staff, for instance: Allied Health Professionals (AHPs); Ambulance Staff; Dental Staff; Doctors/Medical staff; Nursing staff; Midwifery Staff; Healthcare Scientists; Health Informatics Staff; Management; Wider Healthcare Team; Complementary Therapists.

Further sources

NHS Careers has sections on: