Occupational Therapy: A Crash Course

Updated: Apr 8

Many friends and family still have no idea what occupational therapy (OT) is. Some still think we "help people get jobs". The purpose of this post is to break down the concept of occupational therapy, in hopes to educate the public about what we really do! If you are an OT professional, you know that we do a lot, in many different settings.

In order to first begin understanding what OT is, we need to first understand what exactly 'occupation' is. I like the simple definition by Merriam-Webster:

1. An activity in which one engages noun oc·cu·pa·tion \ ˌä-kyə-ˈpā-shən \

Now, I know what you're thinking. There are so many activities one can engage in. Well, you're not wrong! Each activity that we engage in is going to be completely different for every individual and we like to place an emphasis on that during practice. Luckily, in the world of OT, we have our occupations conveniently sorted under 8 core areas (commonly referred to areas of occupation):

Areas of Occupation

  1. Activities of Daily Living (ADL)

  2. Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADL)

  3. Rest/Sleep (my personal favourite)

  4. Education

  5. Work

  6. Play

  7. Leisure

  8. Social Participation

Now that you know the 8 areas of occupation, I am going to further break down what makes up each area. Pay attention; many of the following may be things that you engage in every day...

Activities of Daily Living (ADL)

ADLs are activities that are oriented toward taking care of your body, such as bathing, showering, toileting, dressing, eating/swallowing, functional mobility, sexuality, personal hygiene and grooming.

Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADL)

IADLs are activities that support daily life within the home and community, such as caring for others and pets, driving and community mobility, managing finances, maintaining the home, preparing meals, managing health and shopping.


My personal favourite! Rest and sleep occupations are activities that are related to obtaining rest and sleep to support healthy, active engagement in other occupations. Sometimes this area can be overlooked when thinking about occupation, but it is really important to get the rest we need, in order to be able to participate in other areas of occupation. This area of occupation consists of engaging in rest, preparing for sleep and participating in sleep.


This area of occupation is related to participating in activities related to learning and participating in the educational environment, such as formal educational participation, informal personal education needs, interests exploration and informal personal education participation.


The work area of occupation is related to committed occupations, that can be performed with or without financial reward. For example, engaging in activities related to employment interests, employment seeking and acquisition, job performance, retirement preparation and volunteer exploration/participation. As opposed to popular believe, we do not help people get jobs, but we can help to ensure that you have the skills necessary to perform tasks related to work.


This area of occupation is related to any activity that provides enjoyment, entertainment and amusement. Fun, right? This area typically consists of activities related to play exploration and play participation, often geared towards the kiddos!


The leisure area of occupation consists of activities that are intrinsically motivated. Basically, more fun stuff. We all like different leisure activities, whether it is playing a game of cards or going out to play a round of golf! This area of occupation focuses on leisure exploration and leisure participation.

Social Participation

Another fun area of occupation. Social participation consists of the interweaving of occupations to support desired engagement in community and family activities. OT likes to focus on the areas under social participation such as engaging in the community, with family, friends and peers.

Now that you have a better understanding of what an occupation is, it is QUIZ TIME! Just kidding, don't leave yet! So far, we have gone over the occupation part of OT. Now, we will focus on the therapy part...

Occupational therapy is unique, because we are able to work with all types of clients, from birth to 100 and we can work in very diverse settings (not just a hospital or a clinic). You can find OTs in mental health clinics, school systems. outpatient clinics, inpatient hospital units, jails, homeless shelters, home health, skilled nursing facilities and many, many more. Depending on your diagnosis, we will focus on which areas of occupation are not being completed at an optimal functioning level. Depending on specific client needs, we collaborate with the client to determine suitable interventions, to get them back to what they need and want to do - whether that is helping a child gain the social skills needed for participating in school occupations, or helping an amputee become mobile in the community again. The opportunities are endless!

Our hope here at The Occupational Therapy Hub is that everyone knows the true value of OT. If you are a student or practitioner, please share this article with anyone you know who still isn't completely sure about what you are doing. We want to make sure that everyone knows how truly special our profession is! Thanks again for choosing us for your OT needs and resources. Please continue to share positive stories of OT in action on social media, to continue to raise awareness of what we can do.


American Occupational Therapy Association (2014). Occupational therapy practice framework: Domain and process (3rd ed.). American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 68 (Suppl. 1), S1-S48.

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