What is occupational therapy?

Occupational therapist in pink shirt with OT on chest with client in blue shirt. There are speech bubbles that match their shirt colors and show that they are talking about the clients' goal of kayaking
Occupational therapist and client discussing client's goal of kayaking. (kayaking illustrated in clients speech bubble). OT is wearing pink with OT on shirt, and client is wearing blue; their shirt colours match their speech bubbles.

Welcome to the Do What You Love blog. My name is Anna and I’m an Occupational Therapist based in Victoria, BC, Canada. As occupational therapy is the lens of many of the team members on this site, I thought the first blog post should share what occupational therapy is and how it relates to the disruption that we are all experiencing with the current pandemic.

What is occupational therapy?

In general, in occupational therapy, the focus is on doing for wellbeing. People enter occupational therapy when there is a difference between what they are currently doing and what they want/need/dream to do in their everyday lives. As occupational therapists, we get to know our clients and what they value, what they’re interested in, and what ‘living well’ looks like for each individual client. We learn a) what a person wants/needs/dreams to do – what matters to them and where they want to go from here; b)  the strengths and resources that a person has or experiences; and c) the current barriers to their goals for doing. Then we bring our toolkits together (ours in occupational therapy tools and the person’s in lived experience) and we explore, discover and learn what the possibilities are so a person can do what matters most for them and start living in the direction of their dreams.  Although it is important for us to know about health conditions to get an idea of how a person’s health condition(s) may affect what they are doing in life – it helps us choose our assessment toolkit, how a person experiences life and the impact of a health condition on their participation in their meaningful occupations and quality of life is individual and we cannot make assumptions about their experience and occupational therapy service needs based on their diagnosis alone.

Although when many forms ask people “What’s your occupation?”, they mean “What do you do for work?”, in occupational therapy, “occupations” really are the things that people do to occupy their time while living. There are all kinds of occupations – work, taking care of the family, volunteering, crafting, cooking, hanging out with friends, sports, playing music, art, shopping, adventuring, showering, photography, school, playing with your grandchildren – you name it. What occupations mean to people, the way people do occupations, what experiences people get from doing, and how the occupations relate to their health, wellbeing, and quality of life, are all individual. 

The other beautiful thing about occupations is there are so many different ways of doing them. Take obtaining a cup of coffee, for example. Many people start the day with a cuppa joe, or maybe it’s a midday mocha, or an afternoon espresso (or maybe it’s all three). Do you know how many different ways there are to make a cup of coffee? When I was in occupational therapy school, a professor polled the class – some of my classmates used a french press, some of them used a Nespresso machine, some made drip coffee, some used a grinder, some blended in different spices, some added milk or cream, and some purchased it from a local cafe or coffee chain – there were so many different options for doing. And all of them are ways that people reach their goal of obtaining a cup of coffee. 

When we work with our clients, we come from a place of curiosity about the possibilities for clients to reach their goals and open minds. Say a client has a goal of going on a hike. Depending on the person, and their environment, going on a hike could look like: using two feet, one step at a time; using a walking stick or walking poles; using a mountain trike, or manual wheelchair with mountain bike tires and with or without a power-assist attachment; using an all-terrain power wheelchair; using a trailrider with assistance; or going on a virtual hike from a comfortable place at home. All of these (and more) are ways that people can meaningfully go on a hike. 

When we are figuring out ways to make things possible with the person, we look for possibilities within the person (i.e. their strengths, values, skills, expectations, internal coping and cognitive resources, physical abilities etc.), the opportunities within the occupation (i.e. what are the bare bones of what needs to happen; what does meaningfully doing that occupation look like for that person; what time/equipment/resources/skills are needed etc.), and what the environment has to offer (i.e. physical and social accessibility to the individual; policies; availability of external resources such as technology, support persons, time, funding etc.) and how these can be used to navigate their current obstacles to doing (i.e. ableism; social expectations; physical inaccessibility; mismatch between person’s current abilities, the occupation, and the environment, etc.). See more about the Canadian Model of Occupational Performance and Engagement here.

Here are 5 of the ways that occupational therapy is relevant to the current pandemic:

  1. We are all finding that our lives, our regular routines, have been disrupted, and that we now need to navigate the new normal to figure out how we can keep doing what’s important to us. There is a common physical obstacle to engaging in life the way we usually do. As occupational therapists, we can look at this obstacle and we can get creative exploring how participation can be possible.
  2. This is a traumatic experience for many. Many are experiencing feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, loss, grief, and depression relating to our livelihoods, our physical health, our businesses, meeting with loved ones, our leisure activities, and more. For people with pre-existing mental health conditions, this adds another layer to cope with. None of us are certain of anything. Finding ways to do what matters to us is essential for supporting our mental and physical health and wellbeing, and our quality of life.
  3. There are lots of workplace accommodations and news ways of doing that are being set up and that are accessible to more people. We can partner with disabled people and organizations, using and promoting universal design to encourage sustainable, inclusive community development.
  4. Sometimes ‘being’ is the meaningful occupation. Creating a space for being present amongst other meaningful occupations can promote relaxation and stress management. Doing occupations is part of being and becoming your best version of yourself in life. Doing occupations together is important for building belonging (see article).
  5. As part of interdisciplinary teams on the frontlines in hospitals and clinics, we will work with people and their families as they get back to doing what is important to them safely when they return home to their communities.


That’s all for now.

With gratitude and love,



p.s. Here is a fun video that my classmates and I made, when we were at Dalhousie’s School of Occupational Therapy, to help people understand what occupational therapists do:

Author: Anna Braunizer

Twitter: @BeyondCOVID

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