Why Your Occupation Isn’t About Your Job


Between my schooling and my time working as a therapist, I have been in the field of occupational therapy for more than 20 years.  And as a result, I’ve spent more than 20 years explaining to people what occupational therapy is.  I think most OT’s accept that, like it or not, this will always be a required part of our job.

Over the years, I’ve heard a wide range of questions and comments when I tell people I’m an OT.  Some people think that my job is to teach people how to do their job.  Others know someone who has worked with an OT in a completely different practice area (pediatrics, hand therapy, stroke rehabilitation) and can’t figure out how that relates to me (or them).  When I worked in a hospital setting, I even had a patient ask if OT stood for “optional therapy”.

The word “occupation” is what generally confuses people.  In our culture, we equate the word occupation with job/paid employment, so most people assume that OT’s do something related to people’s jobs.  And when I’m working with someone who has been injured at work, that definition sort of makes sense.

But OT’s define occupation as the activities that occupy your time.  It’s the activities you choose to perform or have to perform every day – brushing your teeth, using a computer, caring for your children, exercising, making breakfast, driving to work, etc.  Within the health care field, occupational therapists are unique in their therapeutic use of everyday activities as treatment for a variety of diagnoses.

I prefer to also think of occupation as interchangeable with “role” or “identity”.  It’s likely that you have many occupations:  parent, son/daughter, caregiver, worker/employee, volunteer, spouse, friend, neighbor, etc.  The tasks and activities that are required in each of these roles make up your occupations.  Because of our unique training, OT’s naturally take a very holistic approach to health by looking at who the client is as a whole person and what activities and roles make up his or her identity.

Occupational therapy treatment is based on the concept that occupation and health are completely interdependent.  Your role as a worker or employee is only one of your occupations.  While I’ve spent many years helping clients work through health issues that impact their role as employees, these issues usually also impact their other roles.  It’s all connected.

Illnesses and injuries, whether acute or chronic in nature, have the potential to significantly disrupt your life roles and your identity.  Therefore, occupational therapy can be an extremely effective treatment to regain (or maintain) balance and function in your life.  If you broaden the definition of occupation to mean “the roles that make up your identity”, it makes sense that my experience as an OT is a natural fit to helping my clients make changes to their health habits.

As an OT, my role is to explore with you which of your life roles and/or aspects of your identity have been disrupted as the result of your injury, illness, or other change in your health.   Then we work together to restore your ability to perform those roles (sometimes in a modified or new way).

The treatment is client-centered, meaning that it is focused on activities that are meaningful to you.  Or, as the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) website explains it:  Occupational therapy practitioners ask, “What matters to you?” not, “What’s the matter with you?”

If you’re struggling to meet your health goals and this approach sounds like a good fit for you, contact me and let me know how I can help!