It's National OT Month! Go Out and Advocate For the Field! Oh, Wait, That's Stressful Too.
Last week I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Angela Bender of Peds OT Mentoring Community. We talked in depth about burnout, signs of burnout, why it occurs, how to address it and why it is so common among occupational therapists. Angela asked me if I thought that occupational therapy practitioners (OTPs) carried more professional related stress than PTs and other healthcare workers and I have to admit, this question gave me pause. I immediately knew that my answer is yes, we definitely do and I know this through anecdotal data, but I never stopped to think about why that might be. Doctors and nurses work just as many hours, usually even longer hours in most cases. PTs have the same productivity demands placed on them as we do, so why are OTPs seeming to burn out and leave the profession at such a higher rate? As I talked through my answer, I had a lightbulb moment. On top of everything else that we do, we constantly have the added stress of having to advocate for our profession. Everyone knows what PT does and exactly when they are needed. Noone ever says “what do nurses do?” or “Why do I need PT?”
I often have parents say “obviously my baby doesn’t have a job. Why do they need OT?” I literally always spend the first fifteen minutes of the evaluation explaining what I do and justifying my services. We often have contracted neonatologists in our NICU and babies don’t get doctor’s orders unless I advocate for them, explain to the neonatologist why it is needed, and then show them how to put the order in the computer.
In some practice areas, this is even more challenging, especially as the profession is moving into more emerging practice areas. The AOTA encourages us all to be “agents of change” but we certainly don’t schedule “be agent of change” into our busy schedules. This is something we need to put a lot of energy into, above and beyond everything we already do.
Advocating for occupational therapy in mental health can be particularly draining. We are often advocating for our state to recognize OTPs as qualified mental health providers or trying to convince behavioral health programs to add occupational therapy as a service or trying to get insurances and Medicaid to recognize occupational therapy services in mental health settings so that reimbursement occurs. This, in and of itself, can be very draining and make us feel unvalidated and often irrelevant. We know our value. We know what we went to school for and how beneficial our services can be, but it often feels like an uphill battle to convince everyone else. If you are a mental health OTP, you might want to check out this resource from the AOTA with some helpful terminology and data to advance our profession in the behavioral health field.
It can be really lonely out there. Often OTPs are the only one in their practice area. I am the only therapist in the NICU I work in. It is very small, so we don’t have SLPs or PTs. I do everything. I love it, but it can definitely be lonely sometimes. Home health occupational therapy practitioners or itinerant school-based OTPs or Early Intervention OTPs can go weeks without seeing another OTP. We need to be able to collaborate, bounce ideas off each other, and even lean on each other for support. Research shows that one of the leading causes of burnout is not having an ally in the work place who does your same job and understands your challenges. If you don’t have an ally to help you advocate for yourself, consider finding a mentor. Social media is a great place to start. There are occupational therapy groups on facebook for every practice area. Put yourself out there. Ask questions. You can even ask for someone to be your mentor and I am sure you will get a lot of responses.
It might feel lonely out there, but remember, you are not alone. When you advocate for the profession, you advocate for all of us! The picture on the blog post is the picture I took from the bridge at the AOTA conference in Philadelphia in 2017 of all the OTPs making their way into the conference. Remember those pre-covid days? Imagine this army of occupational therapy practitioners standing behind you, rooting you on, patting you on the back and thanking you for advancing the profession for all of us. Most importantly, though, take time for self-care, self-reflection and self-advocacy.