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This year I had the pleasure of attending the BAOT/UNISON Trade Union development programme.

This event took place on the 23rd and 24th of November at Warwick University and welcomed more than 55 Occupational Therapists from across the country who came together to discuss the future challenges we face in our profession. This year many new faces, including me, took part in the event with it being the 1st year that Occupational Therapists interested in becoming activists were able to attend.

On Thursday after a spectacular lunch, we received a warm welcome from Debbie Reilly, our newly elected chair of the National Occupational Therapy (OT) panel, UNISON’S committee for RCOT/BAOT activists and our UNISON lead tutor Nick Entwistle who both played a big part in seeing this development programme come together. An overview of the course was explained, and we were organised into two streams for the afternoon. Stream 1 OT activists, for those of us already experienced as UNISON stewards and stream 2 ‘Get Active’, for those interested in becoming UNISON stewards or who are new to the role.

Being an active steward, I took part in stream 1, where the question was posed to participants ‘what are the issues faced by OT staff?’. In exchanging our views, we identified low staffing levels as a cause for concern. Possibly a result from recruitment difficulties, poor job satisfaction amongst OTs and thus, staff retention. We shared our fears for our professional identity. That the boundaries of our role are being challenged by the ever-growing pressure in our workplaces, exacerbated by the aging population and the governments continued defiance in recognising that the UKs health and social care systems require greater resources to meet service demand.

Furthermore, that we as a profession have an aging workforce, with lower numbers of qualified OTs seeing Occupational Therapy as a ‘life-long profession’. We also recognised the development of Artificial Intelligence and that as Occupational Therapists we will need to be involved in co-designing the products to use in augmenting practice to enable understanding of complexities within our roles.

With these issues surrounding us, as BAOT/UNISON stewards we were asked ‘what can we do to make an impact?’

It is quite clear that for us to challenge workforce strategies and campaign for better recognition of our profession we need more OT stewards. Recognition for our profession is something that we must all work towards. Furthermore, we all have our individual workplace issues, myself an OT in the acute sector I feel apprehension in the NHS England’s Long-term workforce plan that many hospital staff; mainly therapists will be working in the community by 2035. I whole heartedly understand the need for admission prevention and agree there is much investment required to support development of this area, but I must also recognise the huge importance Occupational Therapists play in the acute sector and believe in the benefits our role can have in promoting more acute rehab which will lead to a reduction in the demand on community services.

I raised the idea that UNISON could do more for its 36,000 plus OT members. It could provide better support for raising the OT profile, such as advertising RCOT’s annual Occupational Therapy week in its UNISON membership magazine, diaries and membership emails.

I also acknowledged the importance of our OT support staff and for us as stewards to ensure they are on the correct pay scale for the roles and responsibilities they perform. Ask yourself, is there a clear difference between the responsibilities of your band 2’s and band 3’s in your workplace? If not, then you could support these members with a job matching evaluation. UNISON is having national success with the Band 2, Band 3 HCA campaign, so it makes absolute sense to get our support staff on the correct pay scale as well. It would also be great to have more support staff stepping into stewardship roles. In the future the need for OT will grow and with current recruitment issues it is likely that our support staff will play a big part in meeting that need. They will likely need to start working more creatively and be providing more advice and support to our patients to free up OTs to be accessible for patient contact.

Karin Orman, RCOT Director of practice and innovation summarised where she felt Occupational Therapy may be in 2035 and concluded that to support the future of our profession, we need more data collection. Good quality data would enable us to demonstrate a strong profile of evidence to the Government on the benefits of Occupational Therapy.

Following group discussions, we came back together to share our thoughts on the day, recap and consolidate our learning.

After some time to rest from the days discussions there was an evening reception which involved a three-course meal. This was such a great networking opportunity from an OT and stewardship perspective, I was surrounded by a great bunch of people and the meal was lovely too.

Day 2 kick started with the continued theme; a panel discussion took place on the future of Occupational Therapy services, staff and the opportunities we may have to shape it for the better. The panellists included Debbie Reilly as chair, Suhailah Mohamed; RCOT Head of practice and workforce, Odeth Richardson; Chair of RCOT and Jon Richards; UNISON Assistant General Secretary. Alongside inspirational talks on their personal career progressions, the panellists with their wealth of knowledge and experience answered questions raised by participants regarding the long-term challenges and changes we face in public health and the NHS and how RCOT and UNISON plan to support with these challenges.

A plenary followed with Fiona Wild an Occupational Therapist representative on NHS Staff Council and Nick Entwistle to discuss UNISON’s approach to organising and negotiating on OT pay terms and conditions. This gave stewards a forum to have their voices heard on the workplace issues we face as NHS employees. Nick presented on current issues facing the NHS and how UNISON are campaigning for better working conditions, giving an oversight on the different processes UNISON must go through when negotiating for its members.

Following a short break, the participants were put back into subgroups to consolidate learning from the programme, focusing on an issue of interest raised from the day before. The experienced stewards were reminded to utilise coaching skills to encourage newer stewards to identify actions that could assist change.

In summary, this development programme was a most enjoyable, inspirational event. It provided the opportunity to spend time deliberating on areas that we need to focus on for our profession to remain relevant in current and future healthcare services. It was great to meet like minded people who are motivated and passionate about protecting our core values as Occupational Therapists. I am sure many of you reading this report will certainly feel the same desire and I would recommend that you attend next year.

In the meantime, if you would like further information on what it is like being a BAOT/UNISON steward I would be happy for you to contact me; laura.platt2@nhs.net or contact the branch to discuss how you can become more active in your workplace. There is a role for everyone to become more active in UNISON and I would suggest you visit the UNISON e-learning site to play the Activate! game. This invites you to consider your interests, skills and qualities and suggests roles that might interest you.  You’ll need to log in using your My.UNISON account.

I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Laura Platt

Occupational Therapy

University Hospital Plymouth NHS Trust