Taking the plunge – getting back to practice. Ursula Laing, Occupational Therapist, Successful Returnee.

Ursula Laing, Occupational Therapist, Successful Returnee 😊

After 20 years in a totally different working environment, I decided in 2019 that I would try to get back into Occupational Therapy (OT). The whole world of healthcare had changed unimaginably in that time and of course I, too had become a different person.  This is an account of my journey, pandemic and all….

Where to start…?

I began tentatively mentioning the possibility of returning to my old OT friends whenever we met up and then I got in touch with some former colleagues to gently enquire about possibilities for returning to practice in my previous health board area. They all assured me that I would be most welcome and that the NHS and the profession were in need of staff at a variety of levels. 

I also read over the information available online on the COT (https://www.rcot.co.uk/about-occupational-therapy/return-to-practice/returning-practice) and HCPC ( https://www.hcpc-uk.org/resources/guidance/returning-to-practice/ ) websites where I found out that I would need to do 60 days return to practice updating my skills, with a minimum of 30 of those days in supervised practice.

One of these former colleagues gave me the email address for the Lead OT as a first point of contact and that got the ball rolling.

In June 2019 I had an encouraging and energetic meeting with the Lead OT and she was frank about the changes in the NHS and how those have affected the role of AHPs and OT in particular. She was really keen to help organise my return to practice updating to fit in with my other commitments and to give me as wide a breadth of experience possible. She also encouraged me to start thinking about how to split my time between supervised practice and study both informal and formal.

Tackling the Bureaucracy

Before I could start my supervised practice, I needed to complete various recruitment procedures for NHS and supporting checks … an honorary contract, PVG certificate, Occupational Health screening. I also re-joined the Royal College of Occupational Therapy as a student member and made contact with the HCPC to indicate that I was returning to practice.  This involved some financial cost and I became aware that the onus was on me to keep chasing things and following up on emails.

All this took a few months. But in the end I was offered a really interesting timetable of experiences across the fields of Mental Health and Physical Disability and in a variety of clinical settings, some of which were more familiar to me than others.

The first day back!!

In truth, I was extremely apprehensive about going back into a hospital environment even on a re-training capacity. I wasn’t quite sure what would be expected of me as a ‘Returner’ and was concerned that I might be thrown in at the deep end.   I also worried deep down that, after 2 decades away from a care environment, I wouldn’t be able to have any rapport with patients, I wouldn’t have a clue what the job was about and I would be lost in the procedures and massive machine which is the NHS now. 

My first block of experience was in the adult, psychiatric admissions wards of the local hospital –  the OT staff there were very welcoming, supportive, understanding and looking back on it, very patient and tolerant.  Although I felt like total novice, all staff in the department and the wards were encouraging and recognised my previous experience with more value that I did at that point. Then I had another few weeks in various other Mental Health community setting which broadened my understanding of that aspect of current service.

Across these practice elements, I would follow up with private study of anything I had encountered during the day; conditions, medication, treatment techniques, assessment tools… anything!… and it really helped make the practice relevant and valid. I also became accustomed to doing practice reflections to help me go back over the clinical experiences with an honest and critical eye, identifying gaps in my knowledge, skills or attitude.

The COVID times

As I was about to start the physical rehabilitation side of my return to practice in March 2020, the pandemic swept through and I was forced to postpone for almost a year.

In that time, I tried to keep studying but I found it hard when there was no practical experience to relate it to.  I did begin phoning some contacts in the OT world for in depth interviews about the role of the OT in various specialities. This was a very interesting exercise but made me more aware that there is nothing like hands on experience to get a proper feel for the job.

The Last Lap

As the pandemic restrictions dragged on, I began applying for Band 3 or 4 jobs as a means to acquire the necessary experience to complete my hours. Fortunately, after an interview, a panel member generously offered to set up placements to allow me to complete my hours.  Those included some hospital and community settings and were perhaps the most valuable because of the view I had of what the NHS might look like post COVID.  I kept up the private study as before, following up on diagnoses or terminology I encountered during my practice experience.

I finally regained my registration in April 2021.

After All…

Through my practice, I had become aware of the range of community services available and thought I would like to work in that environment if possible. When a Band 4 Assistant Practitioner job came up in the Community Brain Injury Team, I applied and was successful.  I benefitted from the chance to familiarise myself with NHS in a less pressured role than a qualified staff member and I also really enjoy the variety and complexity of the patients who are referred to the team.

I also had the chance to join the NHS Education for Scotland AHP Return to Practice National Working Group through applying for an Expression of Interest to do project work. The group developed national guidance for enabling AHP Returners to arrange supervised practice as well as designing a website and other strategies for publicising the drive to encourage former professionals back to the workplace. 

After 15 months I gained a Band 5 OT post in the psychiatric admission wards of my local hospital, where I am currently settling into the in-patient environment and patient profile, which exercises and develops a different set of my skills and knowledge. Now I have enrolled on Flying Start NHS which is a nationally run programme to support newly qualified practitioners. I look forward to accessing the sessions and activities relating to this to further enhance my return to the workplace. 

One door closes and another opens…

I have thoroughly enjoyed my return to practice journey and see now that my biggest hurdle (apart from a global pandemic!!) in getting back to practice was my own confidence.  Through the re-training and time as a band 4 I have had the chance to do some really interesting work with some fascinating patients, as well as meeting some old colleagues and making some new friends. 

I now see that the intervening 20 years have given me great life experience and understanding of the world in general, all of which can make me a better therapist and employee.

I would urge anyone who is considering it to begin making enquiries and explore the options.  There are lots of options available and it can be very refreshing to go back into a workplace with a different view on life and perhaps with a whole additional set of skills.

If you are thinking about returning to the workplace, or know someone that might be interested I would encourage:

  1.  Having a look at the stories of other people’s journeys on the NHS Education for Scotland site Return to Practice | Allied Health Professions | NHSScotland Careers and
  2. Joining in the conversation in the Facebook Group –  AHP Return to Practice in Scotland   –   AHP Return to Practice in NHS Scotland | Facebook   where you can share your concerns and pick up tips from other peoples’ experiences. You can easily join the group and talk to me there.
  3. If you’d appreciate an informal chat to discuss your return to practice, please get in touch with me directly Ursula.laing@lanarkshire.scot.nhs.co.uk

Ursula Laing, Occupational Therapist, Successful Returnee, NHS Lanarkshire


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