Occupational Therapy - The Art of Sustainable Living

Frances Mortimer's picture

Hope, empowerment, meaningful activity – the three pillars of the mental health Recovery Model are at the heart of occupational therapy practice. Can OTs use these same tools to help us discover the art of sustainable living?

It is a beautifully sunny evening, and I am speeding through the South Downs on my way home from the first Green Occupational Therapy study day. Words and impressions from the day bubble up: ‘mindfulness’, ‘early intervention’, ‘lifestyle redesign’, ‘service transformation’, ‘sustainable shopping’, ‘active community engagement’.

Opening the programme, Sonia Roschnik, the Operational Director of the NHS Sustainable Development Unit (SDU), revealed her own identity as a former occupational therapist. She proved the ideal person to introduce the group to the principles of sustainable development, the work underway in the NHS, and the scale of change which will be needed to reach the Government’s 80% target for carbon reduction by 2050.

As she pointed out, this means an almost complete decarbonising of the economy, including health services – and no one yet knows quite how this will be achieved or what it will look like. (Will pharmaceutical companies of the future be helping patients improve their health through walking instead of selling their (carbon-intensive) pills??). But, by taking the skills they use with individual clients and applying them to teams and whole services, occupational therapists could play a vital role the transformation to more sustainable care.

Next up it was my turn: to introduce our model of sustainable clinical practice (prevention, self-care, lean services, low carbon decisions) and the work underway in Green Nephrology to change the culture and systems of a whole clinical specialty.

Getting back to OT, Ben Whittaker explained his proposal for a paradigm shift from the currently accepted social model of wellbeing to a model of “Sustainable Global Wellbeing”, pointing out that our society can’t be truly healthy while it is contributing to the devastation of global ecosystems. This is a big deal because it redefines wellbeing – the goal of therapy – and would give OTs a remit to explore sustainability aspects of activities with their clients, for example looking at sustainable sourcing of food and clothing.

Professor of Occupational Science, Gaynor Sadlo, gave another really interesting OT perspective: the concept of “mindfulness” as a state of greater awareness and meaning in undertaking an activity. Evidence suggests that just doing everyday tasks with greater awareness has huge benefits to individuals’ wellbeing – could this be an important counter to the “New Variant Consumption” which is driving carbon emissions and undermining health? Perhaps the key to the “art of sustainable living”…

After a break for lunch, Tamara Rayment led a discussion on sustainable OT practice with clients. After touching briefly on gardening, cooking and shopping, the group decided to focus on a less obvious topic: the use of splints. Issues raised included the materials used to make the splints, and their disposal, but also the use of splints more generally: no doubt that there are times when splint will increase independence and speed recovery, but are there times when OTs and their clients are distracted by splints as a technical fix, missing an opportunity for more holistic rehabilitation? What opportunities are there also for prevention and early intervention to avoid the need for splints arising in the first place?

So what future now for the Green Occupational Therapy Network? There is growing support within the College of OT, with the College magazine, “OT News” featuring Green OT in recent issues, and Ben and Tamara invited to give the keynote presentation at the COT Mental Health conference on 27 April. Next steps planned are to support the 200 network members to start discussions on sustainable practice in their workplace (e.g. providing template slide packs) and to get behind the 10:10 with an OT-specific 10-point action checklist. Action No. 1: how to make a sustainable cup of tea!

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