You may have searched this question after hearing different things – or like me a few years ago – reading articles that Occupational Therapy is on the top-ten list of “Least Stressful Jobs” or that it is a “Top job of whatever year.”

Pretty sure whoever wrote those articles probably isn’t an OT… but I digress.

If you are not yet an OT and you’re wondering “Is it really low stress?”

The short answer is no, for a variety of reasons that I’ll get into.

However, I also don’t think that OT is special because of it. If you’ve never had a “real” job before, it’s important to know that most jobs, going to school, and parenting are all pretty stressful stressful.

Life is stressful! Understatement of the year right there!

I absolutely love being an occupational therapist, and would not do anything over if I had the chance. Although, like any normal person I sometimes briefly imagine changing up my job or setting. But I think everyone has this happen at some point or another. 

Why is occupational therapy stressful, when reports say it’s not? 

These are the key factors.

Productivity Targets

Is occupational therapy stressful?The first of which I can attribute to productivity.

Every OT job in the adult setting – whether it’s acute care, inpatient rehab, outpatient therapy, or skilled nursing – will all have a productivity requirement.

This can be stress me out at least a few times a week if I get caught up in something that is “unbillable time.”

My current two jobs separately require 75% productivity and 80% productivity.

Both targets can be tough to achieve if I have a lot of paperwork from evals or progress notes. It sure beats the 89% (!!!) productivity I had during a SNF fieldwork though.

It really can feel like you’re a factory worker running from patient to patient with no bladder-emptying time.

Paperwork

Speaking of paperwork, as an OTR you will sometimes have seemingly never-ending piles of paperwork from evaluations, contact notes, weekly/progress notes, to discharges.

The more our healthcare system changes, the more nitty-gritty things get added to the paperwork.

As an example, at my inpatient rehab fieldwork the hospital changed their daily notes to include 13 pages on the computer system each with different boxes to check for a session. So if you saw your patient twice for 30 minutes, that’s 26 pages of clicks for just that patient.

Evaluations for Medicare and other insurances are asking for more and more assessments to justify treatment, and each daily note I feel like I have to explain each and every sentence of why I chose a particular intervention and how it ties to improved function.

Each and every sentence you write can have an impact on insurance payout and whether the patient can continue service.

This seems to be the way every health profession is nowadays, though, so I just remind myself of this during my 1-2 plus hours of documentation a day and grind through.

Challenging Patients

My pediatric OT friends can attest to this, and can add in stories of challenging parents as well.

While I can’t relate to peds, I can say that working in the adult population, there will be patients that test your patience, to say the least.

It’s just a fact that some people are just not very nice to begin with. So when they’re in a vulnerable and challenging situation of their lives, this just exacerbates their negativity.

Is occupational therapy stressful?

While clinicians know and understand this, it can still be pretty draining to work with this type of person five times a week for at least an hour a day.

Add in two to three of these types of people on your team at once, and this can lead to some major feelings of stress and anxiety.

Heartbreaking Situations

As a therapist, I want to help each and every one of my patients achieve all of their goals and go home living the most fulfilling life they can.

Unfortunately, the world sometimes has other plans for people and no matter how much we try in the medical field, people sometimes get sicker and may not make it home.

This can be especially devastating when you’ve gotten close to a patient over a period of time (young or old), and they suddenly take a turn for the worse and end up passing on.

Is occupational therapy stressful?

This has happened more than a few times in my career, but it still hits me like a ton of bricks when it happens.

Other tragic situations are patients with little to no financial and/or family support that must be discharged from therapy to a home or facility lacking resources they need to succeed even causing regression.

The best thing we can do as clinicians in these situations is give these patients our all while we have them and provide as many resources for them to utilize post-discharge.

It’s Physically Demanding


This aspect is up there with productivity requirements as one of the hardest things for me as a therapist.

I know the correct body mechanics, and use them all of the time. But some days I can have some very heavy patients and even with the proper form, I go home with some major low back pain.

This exists at almost every OT job, aside maybe from hand therapy. Even pediatrics can entail quite a bit heavy lifting, which can be hard on the body.

This doesn’t mean that I would prefer a boring desk job. Good comes with bad and you learn how to handle it better over time.

This emphasizes just how important it is for you as an OT to be in good physical shape so your body can handle the physical demands of patient care.

Workplace Drama

Thankfully this doesn’t exist at every place you’ll ever work at. But it does exist.

This is also something that can be at every job, but I had to add it in here as workplace politics and drama does occur at times.

To avoid this, I work at two separate facilities (each part time) and basically come in to work, see my patients, document, and leave.

This cuts down on drama immensely. I try my hardest not to get sucked into it. It is important to take yourself seriously as a professional and never talk badly about other co-workers.

_______________

Okay, that about sums about the more stressful aspects of OT, and why it isn’t as stress-free as some of these surveys may lead you to believe.

However, I want to now discuss the reasons why being an OT is an amazing career even though it does sometimes come with added stress.

The number one reason why it’s a terrific career is my patients. Hands-down.

Yes, even each and every difficult patient I’ve had. I’ve given my all to give them to best treatment because I care about all of them, even when they’re having a bad day (or month, or year).

I love that I am able to work directly with each person to help them overcome some of their hardest life challenges and obstacles.

I love seeing each and every small and large milestone that I help them to accomplish, even if it’s as small as finally being able to put on shoes independently.

It really touches me to see patients and their family members moved to tears for how grateful they are that I was able to help them get their basic function back.

At the end of the day, I’m so grateful to be a part of this profession and wouldn’t have it any other way.

Anyone else have any thoughts on this for people that are looking into becoming an OT? Please share in the comments below!

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3 comments

  • Laura Hely May 14, 2016   Reply →

    Well written, really takes me into the OT world. Any healthcare position is fraught with paperwork and physical demands, not to mention heart-wrenching deaths. But in OT you get to spend a lot of 1:1 time with your patients s, a “luxury” many other healthcare workers don’t have. That may be one of the reasons it gets such high marks as a career. With more experience, you may find ways to shorten how much writing you have to do by a fraction. Paperwork is the most unrewarding aspects of any healthcare job, there’s no getting around that. How big an issue is liability in OT? Do you have to carry malpractice insurance?
    Thank you for this concise but very informative piece.

    • Sarah May 16, 2016   Reply →

      Hi Laura, thanks for your comment! It definitely is a luxury being able to actually have time to talk with my patients (as I did not have a lot of time for as a CNA). As any healthcare provider, we do have liability for each patient we care for, so thorough and proper documentation (as well as following precautions!) is crucial. I currently do not carry my own liability insurance but after you mentioned it, I do remember a professor back in grad school saying it was only something like $15 a month, so it is definitely something I and other OT’s should consider, especially if you are an independent contractor.

  • Zequek Estrada September 29, 2016   Reply →

    I love the point of view that this post was written. It makes sense why it’s important for an occupational therapist to be in great physical shape. I imagine that’s something that not many people may think about when thinking about that career.

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