Boss Lady

Meet the woman changing occupational therapy — one business owner at a time 

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Thirty years ago, I proudly graduated with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Occupational Therapy. Bushy-tailed and eager, I was excited to start my career and help people. 

But after ten years of working as an occupational therapist in a mixture of government and private settings, I wasn’t feeling so bushy-tailed and eager anymore. In fact, I was burnt out, and everyone around me was too. 

I was struggling to have quality time with my three young boys whilst juggling a career, eager for professional satisfaction, whilst needing to financially support my family. 

No matter how diligent I was or the extra hours I put in, I could only do so much within the system. Paperwork over patient outcomes, cost-cutting over care, the writing was on the wall and I didn’t like what it said.

So, in 2002, I started my own business or ‘private practice’. Like many business owners, the journey opened my eyes to the opportunities and pitfalls of running your own business, namely the loneliness, potential for burnout- never being able to switch off-and the need for a good support network. 

These challenges were heightened in health care, where the focus is, quite rightly, on the delivery of services and patient outcomes, rather than the running of a business. But at least I was free to innovate and, most importantly, put the needs of my clients first whilst still being present for my three boys. But I still couldn’t shake the feeling that the system needed changing and I worried for the health of my peers. 

Think about it: occupational therapists are on the go all day. Back-to-back sessions. A ridiculous amount of red tape and paperwork to achieve basic client outcomes. Precious resources being used up on administrative tasks. A long list of clients to be seen, many with complex needs, where the occupational therapist can only scratch the surface given time constraints. Leaving very little, if no time, to actually take care of themselves. It doesn’t make for a healthy workforce or good client outcomes. 

I wanted to explore new ways of working that promote the health and wellbeing of therapists. After all, it’s the very thing we are trying to achieve with our clients.

And so, my journey to disrupt the way occupational therapists work began. 

Knowing there must be occupational therapists out there like me craving a better approach, a thought occurred to me: what if I could create a business model that could support other occupational therapists to set up their own practices, while providing best practice for her client?

So, that’s what I did.

In 2012, I founded Australia’s first and only occupational therapy franchise business– ActivOT– investing in health professionals and turning them into successful business owners.

Back then, franchising in allied health was virtually unheard of – it still is! I was convinced it was the answer. Not only could it provide much-needed support and guidance for occupational therapists, but it could deliver better outcomes for our clients.

Ten years later, ActivOT has 50 franchisees and is growing rapidly.

We believe that by working smarter, not harder, occupational therapy practitioners  can create a successful, client-centred business while also looking after their own health and wellbeing. Only then can they be the best possible advocates for our clients, helping them achieve great health outcomes and live their best lives. 

My business is proof that there is a better way to do occupational therapy. A way that puts the needs of therapists first, so they can provide the best possible care for their clients.  

These changes need to be applied across the board if we want to see a happier, healthier workforce and, ultimately, better client care. It’s time for a shake-up. And here’s what needs to happen: 

We need more flexibility and balance  

Employees the world over are crying out for more flexibility and occupational therapists are no different. Flexible work should be the standard, not the exception. Lots of departments and organisations give lip service to flexibility but the reality is very different. Occupational therapists feel uncomfortable still having to ask all the time. It still impacts their opportunity for promotion. The culture hasn’t shifted. It’s time to rethink the way we work, so that we can have a better work-life balance and therefore be in a better position to provide care for our clients.  

Not to mention, our industry is largely female-dominated, with women making up roughly 90 percent of occupational therapists, so we need to make sure we are accommodating for the different stages of their lives. Most franchisees within ActivOT are mums who have chosen our model so they can spend more time with their families, while continuing to do a job they love.

Less paperwork 

The alarm bells went off for me more than 20 years ago, when I found myself spending more time on paperwork than with clients. Now, it’s reached a crisis point. We need to find a way to cut through the red tape and get back to what matters– caring for our clients. Some paperwork and compliance is important, but the current system is overloaded and not fit for purpose.

Less micromanagement 

Recently, one of our newest franchisees admitted they were nervous when I suggested we catch up for a coffee. Such is the trauma caused by years of being micromanaged in government and institutional settings, that they thought I was going to tell them off! This has to change. The purpose of my meeting was to ask how I could support them better, not to micromanage their work. 

Less bureaucracy 

This brings me to my next point. Occupational therapists are increasingly spending time justifying themselves and what they do, which takes away precious time which could be better spent with clients. The current system is only under-resourced because so much time is required on bureaucratic processes. Imagine if that was freed up to spend actually making a difference for the client? We know what we are doing for our clients’ actually works- we travel the journey with them and they provide feedback to us constantly and we can see the difference we make in their lives.

Greater emphasis on the health and wellbeing of occupational therapists 

I firmly believe well people make well people. Exhausted, overworked, disillusioned occupational therapists cannot. It’s that simple. 

Return to grassroots

At ActivOT, we practice occupational therapy the way it was always meant to be practised – with a focus on the whole person– without the unnecessary bureaucracy, KPIs, and paperwork that achieves nothing for the client. This shouldn’t be an anomaly. It should be the norm. We need to get back to basics and remember why we got into this profession in the first place: to help people achieve their full potential.

Greater focus on information sharing among occupational therapists 

There is a huge amount of knowledge and expertise within our profession, but it’s often siloed. We need to find a way to share information and best practice more effectively, so that we can all provide better care for our clients. We do this at ActivOT – rather than constantly compete, our franchisees support one another and want to see each other’s businesses flourish. It’s one of the reasons our franchisees are so successful. 

Better pay and conditions 

ActivOT franchisees earn, on average, 97% more than government employees doing the same hours.  We also offer them true flexibility and control over their working lives. It’s time for the profession as a whole to catch up. This kind of out of the box thinking is what’s needed to attract and retain the best talent. 

These are the changes that need to happen if we want to see a happier, healthier workforce and better client care. 

It’s time for a shake up. Are you with me?

Helen Whait is an award-winning occupational therapist and innovator, the founder of ActivOT, Australia’s first occupational therapy franchise and a national finalist in the 2022 Australian Allied Health Awards. If you’re an occupational therapist who wants to learn more, get in touch here.

 

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