Hear what the pros have to say about being a occupational therapist and what it takes mentally, emotionally, and physically to succeed in the field.
Successful occupational therapists not only exhibit personal traits and skills that help them succeed throughout their career; they also know how to use those traits and skills and integrate them into their clients’ lives, helping them to succeed as well. As an occupational therapist, you will only succeed after your clients do—but oh boy, it can be rewarding!
Unlike other types of therapy, occupational therapy takes a holistic approach and deals with the whole person rather than focusing on one specific problem. For example, if you injure your knee in a car accident and need to see a physical therapist, that therapist will help you learn to walk properly again with various exercises and such. But if you see an occupational therapist for the same injury, the occupational therapist will not only help you to walk again, but also focus on your mental and emotional states. An occupational therapist may even come to your home to ensure that furniture is arranged in a way that helps you move around ore easily during your treatment.
So how do you know if you have what it takes to be a successful occupational therapist? Here are ten qualifications:
1. You have good communication skills: Occupational therapists spend a good amount of time listening to their patients and explaining in-depth procedures and situations. Sarah Tucker MS, OTR/L, the OTA Program Director at Brown Mackie College – Birmingham and member of the Alabama State Licensing Board explains: “To work with others, we must be able to truly listen to their needs, process our thoughts, critically think about each situation and respond in a way that is clear and effective. We must be able to listen and speak professionally and confidently to doctors, co-workers and all other professionals on our teams. We must be able to clearly and effectively document all that we do with our clients: for legal purposes- our license can be called into question and taken if we ever are called to testify and have not accurately captured what happened with our clients under our care; for reimbursement- we need to clearly state our goals, plans and the client’s progress to get paid for our services. Lastly, we need to be able to read, understand and discuss research and document our treatment for future research opportunities.”
2. You have exceptional people skills: Occupational therapists work with people of all ages who have disabilities, injuries, or mental problems. Some clients may have a bad day once in a while, while others are frustrated, angry, and upset all the time. Knowing how to keep a client calm under stress is important to helping your clients succeed.
3. You know how to solve problems: Problem-solving skills are essential in the occupational therapy field. Problems may vary from one client to another, and some clients may have several different problems. You must know how to solve each problem in order for them to be successful. Susan Coppola, the AOTA Delegate for the WFOT, explains: “Problem-solving is the essence of the work of OT. We work with clients to help them solve their problems of living. We are all problem-solvers; every moment of the day we are unconsciously or consciously responding to situations. These can be simple situations like how to lift something heavy or difficult situations like budgeting. OTs bring those strategies to awareness to address challenges for people with disabilities, and to prevent risk of decline.”
4. You have physical strength: Often occupational therapists must assist their clients in moving from one area to another or getting in and out of a vehicle. Other times occupational therapists move objects for their clients. Dave Bockhorn, a COTA from Mountainview Care Center in Las Vegas, says, “I think of physical strength as my benchmark. For example, I cannot begin to develop a patient’s endurance or coordination if they do not have the physical strength. Anything that is functional—ADLs, transfers, etc.—all revolve around whether the patient has the physical strength to perform or not.”
5. You enjoy helping others: Occupational therapists do nothing but help others. They help them in all aspects of their lives. For example, some clients need help learning how to balance their checkbooks and mastering other money-management skills, while other clients may require help learning how to regain motion in their fingers so they can button up a shirt. If you do not enjoy helping others, you’re definitely not going to be successful as an occupational therapist. Nicole L. Kauppila, OTR/L, CHT, the manager of occupational therapy services at Athletico Physical Therapy in Illinois, explains, “It’s all you do all day long. Fundamentally, occupational therapists need that helping part within their personality. It’s about helping a client, telling them ‘I’m not going to do it for you, but instead I’m going to inspire you to do it yourself.’”
6. You have organizational skills: Occupational therapists not only need to know how to organize their own schedules, but they also need to know how to organize their clients’ schedules. Clients’ needs will vary. Some will require more help from you than others, but all clients need their occupational therapist to be on top of it all. Emily Jo Kyburz, MS, OTR, a pediatric occupational therapist for Motor Milestones, Inc. in Boulder, Colorado, further explains: “Organizational skills are important in order to deliver thoughtful and well-planned treatment to clients. Depending on what setting it is, OTs may be responsible for scheduling and keeping track of assessment/reassessment dates as well. Regardless of the specific duties a job entails, it’s important to be sufficiently organized and thorough in order to ensure that clients are getting the highest quality of care and that nothing is being overlooked.”
7. You have patience: We’ve all heard the cliché “patience is a virtue,” and when it comes to being an occupational therapist, it’s true. Patience may be the most important personal trait you’ll need to be a successful occupational therapist. Many clients are pessimistic, frustrated, moody, and even suicidal. Some clients may have mental conditions preventing them from doing simple things such as brushing their teeth or tying their shoes. It may take one client a month to get into a morning routine, while it may take years for another client to get it.
8. You are compassionate and empathetic: If you don’t genuinely care about people, occupational therapy is not for you. People do not need a therapist who is harsh, irritable, impatient, or unforgiving. They need someone who is warm, who understands, and who cares about their well-being.
9. You are creative: Creativity isn’t something that can be taught; it must be within you. Often your clients will not be able to adjust to a specific plan or challenge, and it’s up to you to find a way to help them figure it out. Sometimes it’s beneficial to step outside the normal routine. For example, instead of taking a child to a normal rehabilitation center to learn balance and develop their range of motion and strength, you could take them to a gym, where they can be around other children their age who may not have the same disabilities. Interacting with the community teaches social skills and encourages patients to have fun while learning. Heather McKay, MS, OTR/L, a nationally recognized Dementia Care Specialist and team member of Hospice Palliative Care of Alamance and Caswell Counties in North Carolina, explains: “Creativity is important in problem-solving, a process used by all OTs. Just as interventions must be creatively adapted for individual clients, so must system-level changes be adapted for new community-based programs. Occupational therapists have the ability to assess a situation and propose new, creative solutions that benefit individuals, social groups, the physical environment, technology, activities, etc. In a changing healthcare environment, OTs are creative change agents solving complex problems with teams in organizations and local communities as well as with individual clients.”
10. You have writing skills: Like communication skills, writing skills are an important part of being an occupational therapist. You must be able to explain clearly to the client and their medical team exactly what you are doing and how you are doing it. Keeping detailed files on all clients will help not just the client and their medical team, but also the other caretakers who may be present when you aren’t.