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The challenges of working as an Occupational Therapist
Allied Health

The challenges of working as an Occupational Therapist

By Samantha Shannahan

I love being an Occupational Therapist. But the reality is that being an OT is not all sunshine and rainbows! The two challenging areas I want to focus are dealing with Death and Emotional Exhaustion.

As OTs, we dedicate our time and energy to assist someone else to achieve their goals, but we can often forget to conserve energy for our own meaningful activities.

We are exposed to people with potential to improve, but also to people that are very unwell and unlikely to recover. Particularly in Aged Care, we will be exposed to terminal illness and Death. Dealing with death is hard.


In my previous work as a Return to Work consultant I wasn’t exposed to death. Moving into Aged Care I was aware that this was going to change. I expected exposure to death, we work with elderly people, and elderly people pass away… its science… it’s the life cycle. I had convinced myself that I would not be affected by death. Boy I was wrong!

My first few weeks working in Aged Care ran relatively smoothly. There were a few residents that had passed away. I was sad for their families but went along with business as usual. As my weeks turned into months, I built relationships with the residents. I found it a little more upsetting when residents passed away, however most of the time they were quite unwell and were suffering so I taught myself to see it as a blessing. Then Norm came along. Norm was a beautiful man. He was the definition of a Gentleman. He was so respectful to the other residents, always smiling, and a delight to be around. His face would light up every time he saw me for treatment. Norm deteriorated and his Granddaughter had flown down from Queensland to be with him. I remember arriving at work and seeing the Nurse leave his room, she was crying. I was informed he had passed away. I went to his granddaughter to give my condolences in a teary-eyed state. I recall her saying “I think you need a hug more than me” and we shared a moment. I felt so silly afterwards, how unprofessional was I?! Getting upset over a resident in front of the family who just lost their loved one. So, I hid in the bathroom until my red eyes and swollen face somewhat subsided. I also took the next day off as a ‘mental health’ day. I still felt so ridiculous that I let it affect me that much.

Now looking back I have come to the realisation that there are going to be certain residents I build a special bond with. When these residents pass away it is going to have an emotional impact on me. I realised that it’s ok to be sad, it’s ok to cry, it’s ok to have a mental health day. Norm’s family didn’t think I was silly for being upset; they were humbled that he was treasured by those around him.

As therapists we need to acknowledge our grief as it will increase our job satisfaction and decrease compassion fatigue. We need to take in account self-care, including speaking to close friends and loved ones about workplace challenges, continue participating in enjoyable activities (activities that matter to us), and take care of our physical health. As colleagues we need to be aware of symptoms of grief, create a workplace culture where it’s acceptable to express grief, really listen to each other (phones/computers down), and promote access to EAP services.


Occupational Therapists are so passionate about putting all their energy into “providing” and sometimes we forget about ourselves. In the current climate I have noticed many therapists expressing increased fatigue and it’s pretty obvious why!

Due to COVID-19 we are providing social interaction, emotional support and reassurance to our residents, on top of treatment. We are putting on our happy faces (in a time where we are also unsure) and frankly, it’s exhausting. I like this quote from Ginny Stoffel, AOTA President, highlighting that OT’s focus on “what matters to you, not what’s the matter with you”. And now is as good a time as any to ask ourselves this question, “what matters to me?”

It is so important to be kind to ourselves and put our needs first. When your working hours are over, your focus should now be on you. How will you ensure your needs are met? How will you focus on what matters to you?

I am certainly not perfect at “providing” for myself, but I have found the below works for me:

  • Alone time. Just me, myself and I.
  • Cooking/baking – this is my favourite therapy. My recent cooking has involved Bakewell tarts, Anzac biscuits, sausage rolls, apple crumble and chilli oil.
  • Labrador time – whether it be cuddles, sitting outside with them, or taking them for walks at the local park.
  • Hot shower – I love a hot shower after work and putting on my favourite Peter Alexander PJ’s. My all-time favourite t-shirts say, “fries before guys” and “love is a four-legged word”
  • Doing random activities with my boyfriend, Shane. We recently learnt a disco dance routine from Youtube!
  • Going to bed when I’m tired – this can vary from 8.30pm to 11pm. I don’t restrict myself to a certain time, I prefer to listen to my body.
  • Heat packs – a warm hug without someone breathing on you
  • Phone call with my Mum

Self-care strategies you may like to try can include:

  • Phone call/video call to your support group
  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Reading
  • Moving your body
  • Writing in a journal
  • Decluttering
  • Eating well
  • Getting some sunlight
  • Treating yourself – have that chocolate bar, use a fancy bath bomb, give yourself a facial

Below are some great resources you can access:

I would love to hear about your Self-care strategies, the weird and the wonderful!

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