Betting on the job

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CrossCurrents

Winter 2005/2006

Andrea Z. Aster

PETER* WORKED AT A SOFTWARE COMPANY. AT THE CASINO, his game was blackjack. He was a “card counter,” memorizing which cards had already been played. He would sneak out of work early and took too many sick days. By the time the casino discovered Peter’s trick and banned him, he was debt-ridden and plagued with anxiety, his home life a mess. Finally, Peter sought counselling through his workplace employee assistance program (EAP).

Most employers recognize that alcohol and other drug use problems are a drain on productivity and earnings. Many have support services and treatment programs to battle such addictions. But fewer firms have EAPs that offer confidential counselling for problem gambling, or insurance plans that cover treatment.

Yet the need for such workplace supports is more pressing than ever, says Gary Hoskins, an addiction therapist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto. “There’s a correlation between the availability of legal gambling and problem gambling,” says Hoskins. “In 1994 there were no casinos in Ontario. Now there are 10.” In Ontario, Hoskins estimates four to five per cent of the population has a severe to moderate gambling problem – the equivalent of 450,000 people.

But it isn’t only casinos, lotteries and bingo halls that feed the gambling problem. The workplace too, has its share of temptations. According to the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Virginia, 79 per cent of workplaces surveyed had betting pools or games of chance among employees. For problem gamblers, the workplace Internet is particularly dangerous. In a 2002 survey by Harris Interactive of 305 Web-enabled employees, eight per cent said gambling was the most addictive Web content.

With this increased access to gambling opportunities comes growing concern in workplaces that gambling problems add up to a jackpot of absenteeism, job loss, lost productivity and even theft.

Indeed, a 1994 Quebec study estimated that pathological gamblers dock five hours a month in late time. The researchers calculated that, if half the pathological gamblers in Quebec were late five hours a month, and if the average wage was $30,000 a year, lost wages would amount to at least $5 million annually. The same study reported that 37 per cent of pathological gamblers steal up to $5,000 from their employers, 14 per cent skip entire weekdays to gamble and 36 per cent lose their jobs due to gambling-related problems annually.

A 1999 report to the National Gambling Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago suggested that problem gamblers have a higher rate of job loss than non-gamblers -13.8 per cent compared with 5.5 per cent. Employers must then pay the costs to search for, replace and train new employees, which amounts to 10 per cent of the annual salary for each employee replaced.

The key challenge for employers is actually spotting the problem. “Problem gamblers often go unnoticed in the workplace,” says Eric Rubel, manager of Addiction Services at WarrenShepell in Toronto, one of North America’s largest EAPs. “But employers can be aware of the problem if they’re looking for the signs,” says Rubel, who oversees the provision of EAP counselling to corporate clients and provides workplace training for managers (see sidebar).

Rubel cautions that, once suspected, employers should not outright accuse an employee of having a gambling addiction. “It is best to address the issue in a non-confrontational, less obtrusive manner,” says Rubel. “This type of approach aims to reduce defensiveness on the part of the employee and increases the chances of acceptance and compliance with suggestions made by the employer.”

While there are practical strategies for addressing gambling in the workplace (see sidebar), effective action begins at the policy level. Yet the Society of Human Resource Management survey found that only 23 per cent of employers had written policies around workplace gambling. An important component of a solid policy involves regular training for managers and supervisors and providing problem gambling information to all employees. “Lack of awareness of gambling as a health concern leads to punitive action rather than support and treatment,” says Colleen Tessier, senior project co-ordinator with the CAMH Problem Gambling Project. “When employers consider how gambling affects the workplace, they can better address the issue.”

POKER-FACED EMPLOYEES? HERE’S HOW TO SPOT THEM.

Workplace gambling addiction is harder to detect than alcohol or other drug problems, says Lloyd Carr, senior director of Problem Gambling Programs for the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission in Edmonton. Here are some clues:

* unexplained absences, whether a very long lunch or an afternoon out of town with a cell phone that is, oddly, out of service.

* offering to initiate an office football pool or group lottery ticket. purchases – too often.

* being in charge of petty cash, but there are no receipts, or money is missing from petty cash.

* borrowing money from co-workers or asking for pay advances.

* erratic behaviours such as mood swings, irritability and secrecy.

* boasting about winnings.

WHAT CAN EMPLOYERS DO?

* Block Internet gambling sites: www.gamblock.com.

* Keep accurate records on workplace performance.

* Include gambling information in financial services for employees.

* Be aware of situations that may lead to a gambling problem and learn how to avoid them.

* Implement programs that decrease the vulnerability of shift workers and staff on the road, e.g., accountability for time.

* Ensure staff have access to recreational facilities during breaks.

* Organize social events at places other than casinos or race tracks.

Footnote
* not his real name

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