What is the Difference Between an Occupational Therapist and a Social Worker?

Last Updated: June 10, 2024

It’s easy to get confused when trying to understand what constitutes a social worker. An occupational therapist could almost be considered a social worker, but is instead classified as a health care specialist. To make matters even more confusing, there is job position named “occupational social worker,” which is a type of social worker. We’ll try to clarify things here.

Occupational Therapist

An occupational therapist (OT) helps people with physical, mental or developmental disabilities. Sometimes this involves training them to do everyday tasks; for patients who have suffered from serious injuries or disabilities, this can include tasks as basic as cooking, eating, grooming and dressing.

For patients with serious permanent disabilities like cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries or muscular dystrophy, an OT can train the patient in the use of adaptive equipment like wheelchairs, orthotics and aids for things like eating, speaking or dressing.

Some OTs work with people whose ability to do their job has been impaired. The OT can help re-train the client, help find a new job, plan work activities and help employers make adjustments in the workplace to aid the client.

Related: Differences Between an LMFT and LCSW

OTs can also work with the elderly, helping them adjust to declining abilities or training them to use adaptive equipment. OTs can also assess the home environment to make sure they are no hazards that might cause falls or accidents. An OT can also assess whether an elderly person can still safely drive and can arrange for alternative means of transportation.

Some OTs specialize in working with mental health patients and those with learning disabilities. They help patients learn to engage in and cope with everyday life. The OT guides the patients toward simple activities that the patient enjoys doing and assists them in those activities if necessary.

Some OTs work in substance abuse clinics, helping them get back on their feet by learning to readjust to the working world.

OTs can also work with terminally ill patients, helping them restore or maintain their abilities in order to regain self-confidence and self-importance.

More than half of all OTs work in hospitals or in the offices of other health care professionals. Others work in nursing homes, schools or for home health services. The work of OTs can be physically demanding, as they often lift patients and heavy equipment.

Social Worker

A social worker is someone who performs work that is geared toward the betterment of people in need. Social work can serve individuals, couple, families groups or communities, and can take the form of research, community organization, direct practice, intervention or teaching. The beneficiaries of social work can include those who are victims of poverty, social injustice, oppression or mental or physical disabilities.

Related: Careers in Social Work

One of the most common tasks of a social worker is case management—the linking of a client with the proper agency, service or program that can help meet the client’s needs. Those needs might include housing, legal aid, financial assistance, job placement or education.

Other tasks of a social worker might include:

  • serving as an advocate for a client in order to help resolve a crisis or dispute
  • collaborating with other professionals who serve the same client
  • counseling clients in individual or group sessions in order to help them overcome substance abuse, recover from an accident or illness or adjust to new life conditions
  • planning the discharge of clients from care facilities
  • monitoring the progress of clients
  • organizing support groups for clients

Most social workers specialize in a particular area. But even those who specialize in an area often wind up wearing many hats. Here are some of the specialty areas of social work:

An occupational social worker helps employees deal with problems that might affect their job performance, while also aiding the companies that hire them. Occupational social workers can help improve the efficiency, productivity and morale of workers, while improving the company’s bottom line.

A forensic social worker works within the justice system, with law enforcement agencies or in correctional facilities. Their jobs might include assisting victims of crime, working in forensic mental health hospitals, acting as an advocate in court or helping to deal with child custody issues that involve neglect or abuse.

A mental health social worker helps mentally- or emotionally-challenged clients by counseling them individually or in group sessions, and well as by helping them deal with daily routines. They can work for out-patient or in-patient facilities or set up a private practice. Some work in substance abuse facilities.

A children’s social worker helps minors, sometimes arranging adoptions or seeking out foster homes for abused or abandoned children. They sometimes visit teachers, guidance counselors or principles to discuss a child’s problems in school, including teen pregnancy. They can also assist single parents who are struggling to make end meets.

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