What Does an Occupational Therapist Do? Duties, Pay, and More

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Get answers to the question, “What does an occupational therapist do?” and understand how an OT compares to similar roles. Details include skills needed to be an occupational therapist, job outlook, and how to qualify to work in occupational therapy. 

[Featured Image] Occupational therapist in a suit and tie meets with a client.

An occupational therapist (OT) supports people with injuries, disabilities, illnesses, or pain to perform such everyday tasks as going to work or school, looking after themselves, or simply moving around. As an occupational therapist, you'll help patients to adapt their environments to their own needs and work with them to develop new skills or find new, easier ways of doing things. 

If you're interested in a hands-on medical career that allows you to work directly with patients, then you might consider pursuing a career as an occupational therapist. In this guide, you'll learn more about what an occupational therapist is, how it differs from other similar roles and their typical duties. You'll also explore how much they earn, their job outlook, and what you need to do to join the profession. At the end, you'll find suggested cost-effective courses to help you gain job-relevant skills, so you can start wroking toward a career in the field today.

What is an occupational therapist?

An occupational therapist is a specially trained professional who helps people recover, develop, or improve everyday living skills. As an OT, you'll work directly with patients in various settings, from hospitals to schools to home health services. You'll support them as they make changes in their everyday lives to function better without pain or discomfort as they perform tasks previously hampered by their health condition. 

The term ‘occupational’ can be misleading because it's easy to assume an occupational therapist supports people primarily in the workplace. This isn’t the case, as an OT can help people of all ages in various settings.  Here's how occupational therapists compare to other similar professions:

Occupational therapist vs. physical therapist

Occupational therapists often work closely with physical therapists, but the two are actually distinct roles. Physical therapists support people to manage physical pain and improve movement, whereas an occupational therapist looks to improve functions associated with the pain or physical impairment. This could be through adapting equipment or teaching patients new methods of doing things. 

Occupational therapist vs. recreational therapist

Another role commonly confused with an occupational therapist is a recreational therapist, which also supports patients through the use of treatment programs and helps them to adapt to their illness or disability, much like an OT. Unlike OT programs, though, recreational therapy treatments are based on recreational activities, such as arts and crafts, dance, and sports. It’s possible that a patient may be seeing an occupational therapist and a recreational therapist simultaneously. 

Occupational therapist vs. occupational therapy assistant

Occupational therapy assistants work under the supervision of an occupational therapist. Assistants help OTs by supporting therapy, setting up equipment, and working directly with patients by teaching them how to use equipment, directing exercises, and recording patient progress. 

What does an occupational therapist do?

An occupational therapist’s scope is vast. You can work with adults in an employment setting, supporting them by adapting their work environment to continue to perform their role following an illness or accident. You might also work with patients who have been impacted by a mental illness or severe physical conditions, such as a stroke, and need to adapt their movements, processes, and homes to accommodate their needs. 

As an OT, you can also work with young people in schools and care settings to support children who need help managing tasks like handwriting or certain behaviors. 

Typical duties and roles

Day-to-day duties vary according to the patient, but generally, as an occupational therapist, you will perform the following duties:

  • Review a patient's medical history and assess their need for support 

  • Evaluate a patient's home, workplace, and community to make necessary adaptations 

  • Define the patient's need for assistive devices, such as adaptable seating, ramps, and wheelchairs, and train in their use 

  • Support patients to find ways to undertake everyday tasks that have become difficult or are no longer possible, such as dressing, driving, and cooking

  • Teach patients to use equipment selected for their support

  • Demonstrate exercises and techniques to patients to support their movement and independence 

  • Work closely with health professionals such as nurses, physical therapists, and other professionals, including teachers, caregivers, and social workers to decide on the best care and process 

  • Develop a treatment plan with defined goals and clear stages 

  • Offer education for a patient’s family, key workers, employer, and school

  • Assess the progress of a patient to determine future interventions and update other health professionals 

Occupational therapist salary and job outlook

The average annual salary for occupational therapists is $85,570 as of May 2021, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) [1]. The exact salary you'll earn, though, will likely vary based on your location, work experience, employer, and job responsibilities. Typically, the BLS reports an annual salary range of $60,680 to $123,840 for occupational therapists.

The job outlook for an occupational therapist is excellent. According to the US BLS, the number of job openings for occupational therapists is expected to increase by 14 percent between 2021 and 2031, resulting in about 10,100 new job openings each year [2]. Overall, this is higher than average job growth in the US for the same period, which the US BLS puts at just 5 percent for all occupations combined. 

The need for occupational therapists is unlikely to cease, given that people require OT services as they age, and there is a current trend to stay active in later life. More and more people are searching for treatment to make their lives easier to manage, whether due to disabilities, chronic illness, or conditions such as a stroke. Occupational therapists will also have a place in schools for students with disabilities and autism spectrum disorder to improve everyday functioning. 

Work environment

An occupational therapist's work environment varies considerably. People receiving occupational therapy can be from all walks of life. Most OTs juggle their time between the office and working directly with patients. As a result, their work environment may include hospitals, health clinics, workplaces, schools, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, home care, prisons, or anywhere a patient needs support. 

Usually, work is full-time, but part-time positions are available. Occupational therapists need a certain level of fitness because they spend a lot of time on their feet, must physically move patients, and often must adjust heavy equipment. 

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How to become an occupational therapist

To become an occupational therapist, you'll need to gain the right education, certification, and licensure. If you're interested in joining the field, here's what you'll likely have to do:

1. Get your degree.

To qualify as an occupational therapist, you must have a master's degree and, in some cases, a doctoral degree accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE). To gain acceptance into a master's degree in an occupational therapy program, you must already have a bachelor's degree, preferably in a health-related field. This might include biology, physiology, anatomy, or a similar field. 

Some courses may ask for experience as part of the application for study, and you can gain further experience in supervised fieldwork as part of the master's program, totaling 24 weeks. Doctoral programs also require 24 weeks of fieldwork and a 16-week capstone experience. 

Typically it takes two to three years to complete a master's degree, but part-time study options are also available. 

Read more: A Guide to Online Master's Degrees

2. Obtain licensure and certification.

Upon completing a master's or a doctorate, you must obtain a license to become registered as an occupational therapist. To gain a license, you must pass a national certification exam accredited by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). To maintain certification each year, occupational therapists must take professional development classes. 

3. Hone your skills.

Occupational therapists possess a wide range of job-specific and transferable skills that make them suitable for the role. Some of the essential skills you'll need to cultivate include:

  • Communication

  • Empathy 

  • Patience

  • Time management

  • Critical thinking

  • Adaptability

While you can likely learn most skills, it takes a certain type of person to build trust with patients and show compassion in all circumstances, making patients feel valued and supported. 

Read more: What Is Effective Communication? Skills for Work, School, and Life

Next steps

Occupational therapists use their knowledge of the human body to help people suffering from debilitating conditions recover, so they can lead the happiest possible life. If you'd like to join this impactful profession, then consider taking a cost-effective online course through Coursera to gain job-relevant skills today. In the University Anatomy Specialization, for example, you'll explore the foundations of human anatomy, including the major organ systems and their functions within the body. In the University of Minnesota's Preventing Chronic Pain: A Human Systems Approach, meanwhile, you'll pair evidence-based science with creative and experiential learning to better understand chronic pain conditions and how they can be prevented through self-management in our cognitive, behavioral, physical, emotional, spiritual, social, and environmental realms.

Article sources


US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Therapists,  https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapists.htm#tab-5.” Accessed February 8, 2023. 

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