I was recently chatting to an occupational therapy colleague about the programme she works on. People with mental health difficulties attend. The aim is to increase participants confidence and skills in preparation for going back to work or education. As part of our chat she reminded me about one of the core areas of occupational therapy practice – using occupations to develop, practice or maintain a variety of essential daily living skills.
The skills I have in mind are those we heavily rely on but often taken for granted. For example, social skills are needed for teamwork and used in many leisure and productive occupations. However, there may be limited opportunity to practice these if a person is not working or engaging in their usual leisure pursuits. This can be compounded by low self-confidence, anxiety and lowering of motivation. As a result, social skills can be lost over time. Another example is concentration. Being able to concentrate is necessary for most activities. Within self-care, cooking and shopping are good examples of activities that are dependant on concentration. Productive occupations rely on concentration for completing the steps of complicated tasks, following instructions and learning new skills. Many leisure activities also include the need to concentrate in order to enjoyably participate. While it can be hard to imagine losing these skills it happens more often than people realise. People who have had difficulties with these everyday living skills will attest to how difficult life can become as a result.
Participants on the programme my colleague provides occupational therapy input to often have such difficulties. Addressing them can seem daunting, even impossible. We chatted over how she is often assisting a participant on the programme develop social skills through the occupation of playing a team sport OR develop their concentration through the occupation of reading OR develop their planning skills through the occupation of cooking. It is unlikely this would be apparent to people without an occupational therapy background but the emergence of the skills over time can sometimes seem like a transformation, a caterpillar into a butterfly. The person is often well set for taking on the next challenges after the programme with new found confidence in their skills. These skills were always there, just dormant waiting for an occupation to wake them.
I really enjoyed being reminded of one of our unique areas of practice and it brought back many pleasant memories of my early days practicing as an occupational therapist.
The famous song by The Beatles We Can Work It Out is the inspiration for this blog. It’s a statement of positivity and hope. It can be applied to many situations. The word “We” highlights a collaborative approach to address a challenging situation that one or more people find themselves in. The word “Work” is so prominent. Work is a word with many meanings. In the case of the song title it is as a verb; work can also refer to a person’s productive occupation.
I have always been interested in the role occupational therapy has assisting people to have a meaningful and healthy work life. For many people their work takes up more of their time than any other category of occupation. The type of work people do varies and can be paid or non-paid. Non-paid work includes full time parenting, study, retirement and volunteering. All types of work bestow physical, mental and social benefits to the individual and a significant contribution to society.
But what are the barriers to work that some people face? Can We Work It Out? Research I conducted on census data shows that the labour force category “unable to work due to permanent illness/disability” has been increasing over the last two decades. And this only reflects people who consider this to be their situation; there are many more who consider themselves able to work but are not in work and unlikely to gain employment due to negative perceptions of the work abilities of people with mental and physical challenges. One way of addressing this is through people with negative perceptions having contact with people with disabilities who are working. However, for this to occur it is necessary to assist people with disabilities to gain and retain employment and for people who acquire a disability during their working life be assisted to retain their job. There is a specific scheme for the latter, the Employee Retention Grant Scheme, in which occupational therapists can play an important role.
The Employee Retention Grant Scheme aims to help private sector employers to keep employees who acquire an illness, condition or impairment (occupational or otherwise) that affects their ability to carry out their job. The grant helps employers to explore an employee’s continuing ability to operate as a member of the workforce. The scheme recognises that many private sector employers lack the necessary internal resources to develop and implement a retention strategy which can facilitate them to buy in the specialist skills and knowledge to develop and implement a Retention Strategy. An occupational therapist has such specialist skills. At its heart this scheme reflects a “We Can Work It Out” approach. It can be used for any type of disability and applied in many circumstances. It is a Win-Win situation, the employee continues in their job; the employer retains a skilled and experienced employee: there is no loss of productivity for society and importantly negative perceptions of the work abilities of people with disabilities are challenged. Contact OT@OTI.ie if you are in need of a specialist to assist you with this scheme.