The Psychological Fitness for Duty Exam - Leadership -

The Psychological Fitness for Duty Exam

It’s NOT the same as counseling

Mike Wasilewski & Althea Olson | Tuesday, November 6, 2012

One chilly morning last Spring I crawled out of bed the same time I do every workday, showered, downed my morning coffee, and dressed for work–only this time forgoing my usual combo of dark blue cotton/poly blend, ballistic vest, boots and duty belt in favor of a more “business casual” look.

Pulling out of the driveway and heading north as usual, I continued past my normal turn toward the PD and instead went straight for my morning “happy place”–Caribou Coffee!!–to grab another unit of caffeine before doubling back to the train station and buying a round trip ticket to downtown Chicago. I had an appointment to make. It was with a clinical psychologist and I would be going through a full battery of tests and an interview as part of a psychological assessment.  

I wasn’t in trouble, or suspected of having any issues affecting my emotional wellness or ability to do my job. On the contrary, I had just been selected by my department as a Crisis/Hostage Negotiator, pending approval of the psychologist. The evaluation was merely a routine and final part of the selection process, and one I should pass easily enough. Right? 

Besides, I’d been through psych evaluations before and obviously passed.  I went through social work school and have a sound working knowledge of psychology and psychopathology, and I even provided a little therapy to others in my grad school days. And my wife’s a psychotherapist; she’d surely let me know if I had anything to worry about!

So why was I nervous?

Not terribly nervous, really, just … well, you know. Sixteen years of police work can change one’s perspective, after all, and sometimes in ways that non-cops might not understand.  For example, I had deliberately left my house almost two hours sooner than necessary just to make sure I arrived on time because … well, there had been a recent spate of suicides in the Chicago area. Figuring it would look bad showing up late to a shrink’s office, I wanted time to find alternative transportation should some sad soul decide to delay my trip by cashing out their chips beneath the wheels of my commuter train.  

Now, who in hell factors THAT contingency into their travel plans?!?  

As it turned out, I guess I needn’t have worried. I took the psychologist’s tests and answered her questions and obviously passed (even despite revealing to her the morbid reasoning behind my very early start that morning), since she forwarded her assessment to the department and they saw fit to move forward with me as a new negotiator.  

I had voluntarily waived any rights or expectation of privacy in the greater interest of earning a spot I coveted.     

What I went through that day was essentially a form of “Pre-Employment Psychological Exam” in the sense that the tests and interview were designed and conducted to gauge my compatibility with the duties of a Crisis Negotiator and how well I could be expected to hold up to the stresses of the job. 

It was a position I really wanted, the department had a clear and reasonable interest in making sure that I was well-suited for the job, and one of the ways for them to measure my suitability was to require I not only undergo a psychological assessment but also permit the assessor to share her findings with the department. Such is the nature of “Fitness for Duty” exams, but with a very important distinction we’ll soon get into.

We decided to bring up the issue of fitness for duty–and specifically psychological fitness for duty–in the context of this series we’ve been working on delving into employee assistance programs, counseling, and confidentiality. There seems to be some confusion about how seeing a mental health professional as part of a fitness for duty assessment might differ from seeing one for counseling, especially with regard to your confidentiality and what you can or should expect.  

A fitness for duty exam is actually very different from counseling–apples and kumquats, really–and the two should never be confused by officers, supervisors, or administrators.  Unfortunately, they often are and, when this happens, LEOs can feel blindsided if they think they are being sent for counseling when they are really being assessed for fitness, and are surprised to find there is no associated ethical or legal expectation of privacy attached.

Fitness for duty (FFD) exams are, in the strictest sense, supposed to be used to determine if employees are psychologically fit–or unfit–to continue on in the performance of their job duties when their emotional soundness has somehow come into question. 

According to psychologist Gary L Fischler, a fitness for duty exam “initially seeks to answer two questions.

First, does an employee have a psychological problem; and second, can he or she perform his or her job in a safe and effective manner? Both conditions must exist for an employee to be found unfit for duty. That is, if an employee has a psychological problem but no work problems (or clear potential for work problems) then he or she may be referred to mental health treatment, but could continue to work without restriction. In this case, the employee would not be compelled to such treatment and it would be at his or her discretion.

Conversely, if there are work related problems, but no psychological problems, the issues should be handled through remedial or disciplinary channels.”  (Fischler, 2001)    

This, of course, is the ideal and how it usually works in most workplaces. 

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Mike Wasilewski & Althea OlsonMike Wasilewski, MSW, and Althea Olson, LCSW, who have been married since 1994, provide distinctive training programs for police officers and therapists.


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