Why we need to talk about occupational science, as well as occupational therapy

Updated: Nov 2, 2019

By Alice McGarvie - Occupational Therapist and creator of From the Harp


Occupational therapy celebrated 100 years in the USA in 2017 and 100 years in the UK in 2019. I’m from the UK and look forward to learning more about the history of occupational therapy in my country and celebrating all we’ve achieved and our vision for the future. I urge you to find out your country’s occupational therapy history and vision for the future, promote this and celebrate! Even if occupational therapy is fairly new in your country, your country will have an interesting occupational therapy history.


In 2017, my blog What is occupational therapy? went viral, with nearly 40,000 views and over 20,000 Facebook shares. I found myself at the forefront of promoting occupational therapy. This is not something I had set out to do, but having been catapulted into that position I tried to circulate the post more, because occupational therapists and others around the world seemed to relate to my explanations of occupational therapy.


Ours is the only profession that promotes meaningful engagement in every day activities and I believe it is vital that we retain that identity and can articulate why we are the best profession to do that.

In the UK, promotion of occupational therapy largely focuses on our role within the National Health Service (NHS). Essentially, this amounts to attempting to reduce NHS costs by either keeping people out of hospital, or facilitating speedier discharges from hospital. In any case the promotion of our role appears to be mainly concerned with saving the NHS money and keeping people out of hospital. But, I believe, we have a far more profound role in preventative health and supporting people to live well.

As Occupational Therapists, we know that our occupations keep us well, give us meaning in life, and motivate us to get up in the morning. Science backs this up. Further, neuroscience research now suggests that occupation has the power to distract us from pain and anxiety.



But other professionals seem to be making claims about the positive effect of occupations like gardening, singing, art and crafts, etc. When these things are shared on social media there is often a comment added along the lines of ‘great, but I wish it had been an Occupational Therapist that did it’. In the media others appear to be writing and taking credit for the work that Occupational Therapists practice day-to-day. For example, Dr Tamlin Connor - a psychologist and lead study author for research, printed in the Journal of Positive Psychology, into the effect on well being after participating in arts and crafts - states:


“Engaging in creative behaviour leads to increases in well-being the next day and this increased well-being is likely to facilitate creative activity on the same day. Overall, these findings support the emerging emphasis on everyday creativity as a means of cultivating positive psychological functioning.”

We know this: it is our bread and butter.

But we need to make sure other people know.


We all know occupational therapy is hard to explain, as it is so broad and varied, but we owe our colleagues around the world - and the colleagues coming after us - to do this. Let's make it easy for ourselves – we just have to explain our role, not all the possibilities of positions and work places for occupational therapy. Let's keep it simple for us and our audience. As an occupational therapist I question:


  1. What’s the difficulty?

  2. Why is it a difficulty?

  3. How can life be made better?

  4. What can we do about it?

Can you base your explanation around this?


We need to start being confident explaining occupational science too. I feel it’s an historical problem for us that occupational therapy came first and then the science: occupational science came much later. We’re playing catch up. We’re only 100 years old (in the US) and we knew we were on to something before we had the science and the evidence base.


Medics took over 2500 years to get their evidence base together. Occupational science was named in 1989. As an analogy, if evidence for medicine has been around for one hour, occupational science has been here for 30 seconds.


For every person that doesn’t know what occupational therapy is, there are probably many more who have never heard of occupational science. 


It’s new and it’s exciting, so let's be loud and proud about explaining the value of occupational therapy and it’s underpinning in occupational science.

We have the evidence, there is much more to us and our profession than ‘feeling good when we do a hobby'. If other professionals don’t know what we do, then our holistic and creative practice and professional integrity is at stake. The more other professionals understand what we do, the more likely we are to get more referrals, get more funding and prevent other professionals encroaching on our work. So I urge you to get confident explaining your understanding of occupational science and your role as an Occupational Therapist, so we can promote the profession and protect our uniqueness.


Go and add to our history: tell somebody today what you do - and the science behind it.

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