What does an occupational therapist do?

Occupational therapist illustration Maria Davies, Senior Occupational Therapist at Aneurin Bevan University Health Board in Wales and a member of the BHF Alliance, explains the role of the occupational therapist, and how she is working to support people with heart disease in getting back to work.

Where you’ll meet them

Occupational therapists work within both hospital and community settings. Some cardiac rehabilitation programmes will have an occupational therapist as part of the multidisciplinary team. 

Who they help

Occupational therapists work with people of all ages and backgrounds who are affected by accident, physical and mental illness, disability or ageing.

Their support can make a real difference to your life

Occupational therapy provides practical support to enable people to facilitate recovery and overcome any barriers that prevent them from doing the activities (occupations) that matter to them. This could be essential day-to-day tasks such as self-care, work or leisure.

Issues that might lead to a referral to an occupational therapist include everyday functional difficulties, stress, anxiety/depression, fatigue management, sleeping difficulties, return to work/vocational advice, or loss of confidence.

What they’ll do

Occupational therapists are skilled professionals who find solutions to everyday problems. These include:

  • Advising you on approaching a task differently
  • Using equipment or assistive technology
  • Adapting your living or working environment
  • Finding strategies to reach your chosen goals

An occupational therapist will consider all your needs – physical, psychological, social and environmental. This support can make a real difference to your life, giving you a renewed sense of purpose and changing the way you feel about the future.

Occupational therapy and heart disease

Living with coronary heart disease can have a great impact upon an individual’s physical and psychological health. The psychological impact alone can be significant and in some cases can be a barrier to participation in everyday activities.

By understanding the link between health and occupation, the occupational therapist uses a client-centred approach to help people maximise their physical, emotional, cognitive and social functioning, with the focus on long-term self-management strategies.

Occupational therapy within cardiac rehabilitation

As part of a cardiac rehabilitation course, an occupational therapist may offer:

  • Physical, psychological and social assessments (in hospital, at home, or in community groups), which may include assessment of equipment, aids and adaptations
  • Stress and anxiety awareness and management, both on a one-to-one and group work basis
  • Relaxation sessions, on a one-to-one or group basis
  • Advice on pacing yourself and energy conservation
  • Goal setting and time management
  • Getting involved in hobbies and leisure occupations
  • Return to work and future employment advice and support

Occupational therapy and work issues

Some service users may be referred to an occupational therapist due to work-related stress. Often service users feel torn between either attending cardiac rehabilitation or returning to work, while others may experience anxiety regarding their cardiac health and the fear that they may not be able to return to the challenges of their previous work role. This has led to my role expanding to focus on work-related stress, misconceptions and the return to work journey. 

Research shows that people with a long term medical condition find that getting back to work is often helpful in their recovery.

Occupational therapists are skilled professionals who find solutions to everyday problems

One of the key changes to my role has been the need to link in with employers as a mediator in order to plan an appropriate phased return to work and duties.

This collaborative approach appears to work well, as it gives reassurance, reduces work-related stress and anxieties and promotes a focus back to health and wellbeing.

I also link in with other work-related support networks such as Disability Employment Advisors, Careers Wales, Voluntary Organisations, Age Cymru, Citizens Advice and Access to Work advisors.

Preparing individuals to become ‘work ready’ requires a multidisciplinary team approach. As an occupational therapist working in a cardiac team of specialist nurses, physiotherapists, fitness instructors and counsellors, we can support patients with addressing any misconceptions of their condition, assessment of  health behaviour changes and a team focus on service users’ goals and plans to return to work.

Looking at workplace issues at the early stages of cardiac rehabilitation has been helpful because it offers support and means we can address any misconceptions and anxieties that they may have regarding employment.

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