Survival (Because) of the Fittest

Fitness for duty evaluations are standard for those whose jobs affect public safety.

By Katherine Schreiber, published January 10, 2018 - last reviewed on April 17, 2018

OF THE 326 MILLION inhabitants of the United States, only one is empowered to launch a nuclear weapon that endangers the existence of the seven-plus billion people sharing the planet. The only requirement for holding that power is being a natural-born citizen over 35 years of age who has resided in the country for at least 14 years. But the black suitcase (the “nuclear football”) containing the launch codes that accompanies the president everywhere is carried by military aides who undergo rigorous screening to assure their physical, psychological, and even financial fitness. It may be one of the more cosmic ironies that those who must carry out an order for nuclear destruction are extensively vetted, but the person who makes the decision is not.

Every year, many people in the United States undergo some formal test of fitness for duty, including military officers and government workers needing some degree of security clearance. Fitness for duty screenings aim to reveal underlying medical or mental health conditions that might keep a person from carrying out the essential tasks of their job.

By James Wojcik

From pilots to railroad engineers, soldiers to police officers, firefighters to those in the nuclear power industry and those who manage hazardous waste—men and women whose job affects public safety routinely undergo tests of fitness that bear on emotional stability, decision-making ability, and stress-resistance. Even NFL players—those who handle non-nuclear footballs—are required to undergo evaluations as part of the player-selection process; they’re examined not just for their physical stamina and strength, but also for their ability to be coached, their intelligence, drive, emotional stability, and their work habits.

In addition to those whose hiring hinges on demonstrating fitness for duty, employees in any field who give hints that they might be a risk to their own safety or anyone else’s can be asked to undergo such a test, says Gary Fischler, a police and public safety psychologist based in Minneapolis. Behavioral displays of paranoia, talking to oneself incoherently, slurring one’s words, repeatedly failing to follow orders, and generally seeming out of touch with reality, to say nothing of displays of hostility and aggression, could prompt an employer to take a closer look at a worker.

“We want our safety to be placed in the hands of people who can manage the (physical or mental) stresses of their occupations, make critical decisions under pressure, follow protocol, and not surprise us with erratic, unpredictable whims that put us or anyone else in danger,” says Fischler.

The earliest known tests of fitness for duty—dating back more than 2,000 years to the Qin dynasty in China—sorted citizens into occupations and selected those scoring highest to serve in public office. Modern protocols took shape during World War I, to ensure the intellectual and emotional capacity of military recruits streaming into the war machine. The tests took much of their impetus from Charles Darwin, who inspired intense interest in measuring individual differences, and gained steam from growing industrialization of the workplace. After World War II, schools adopted intelligence and achievement tests to sort students while industry adopted personality tests to identify those who might disrupt efficiency.

For those whose jobs affect public safety, ongoing physical and emotional health is not taken for granted. Pilots, for example, must submit to medical examination annually; those over 40 must apply for certification every six months. Broad questions during the medical exam are aimed at assaying psychological well-being (Have you ever been diagnosed with a mental illness? Have you ever smoked marijuana or used illicit drugs?). Affirmative or cagey responses can earn a pilot separate psychological evaluation. Aspiring or established pilots who fudge their medical or mental health history can be slapped with a $250,000 fine or even jail time.

Many large corporations also evaluate fitness for duty in some way, most often by way of personality tests, aptitude tests (assessments of reasoning ability, IQ, or situational judgment), and skills tests. According to a 2014 Global Assessment Trends Report, 73 percent of companies worldwide use skills or knowledge testing to screen applicants, while 62 percent deploy personality assessments. C-level officers have traditionally escaped such a vetting process. But things have shifted rapidly since the turn of the millennium. According to a 2013 study of 95 companies published in Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 90 percent of companies around the world now subject applicants for top positions to personality and cognitive testing.

All the screenings and evaluations in the world, however, can do only so much, says Michael Welner, clinical professor of psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and chairman of The Forensic Panel: “Power affects judgments that relate to public safety. Psychological screening, under the circumstances, protects the public far less than does the willingness of those in power to apply the rule of law to prevent others from abusing power.”

See also: A Handle on the Head of State.
 

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