Problem gamblers in the workplace

“I don’t really know why I’m here, I’m just a little short of cash right now and if my wife would just be more co-operative, we could get ourselves out of this bind by tomorrow.” Another problem gambler at work.

If this person has made it to a counsellor’s office, he is possibly experiencing pressure from the workplace or family to do something about his gambling problem. The “co-operation” required from the spouse might be agreeing to co-sign another loan, re-mortgage “just to consolidate,” cash in RRSPs or participate in some other creative scheme to fund an out-of-control gambling problem.

An employee with a gambling addiction will experience a breakdown in both family and work life, health and productivity will suffer, personal problems will be brought into the workplace and workplace fraud and theft may arise. Employers that identify the problem and assist an employee to seek help are part of a solution that benefits everyone.

Gambling problems in the workplace manifest themselves in many ways. Depression, with its accompanying symptoms, may be the tip of the iceberg either for the family member or the gambler. Too often, the medical profession chooses to treat the depression when in reality the underlying cause is a hidden addiction with a strong denial system. To employers, many of the effects of a gambling problem on work performance are common to those of other addictions, and personal problems may or may not be evident, as well. Often, the problem gambler may be cross-addicted to alcohol or other drugs (this happens from 30 to 50 per cent of the time). In these cases, the substance abuse can become the visible target problem.

Spotting the signs

Employers, supervisors and co-workers of the problem gambler, may not notice signs or symptoms they would directly attribute to a gambler “at work.”

Is the employee who arrives at the office before anyone else in the morning a real go-getter, someone who is willing to put in that extra effort? Probably. But it is not unheard of for the problem gambler to be the first person into the office. He slept in his car in the company parking lot for a couple of hours after being up all night at the casino. Being first in the door in the morning means he can use the shower, change clothes and get an early start on strategies, schemes and manipulations to find the money to “chase his losses” from the night before. The problem gambler is usually preoccupied, stressed out, with a personal life that is in as much trouble as his financial status. Asked how he is doing, he will invariably reply “just fine.”

Some other indicators, and consequences of, a gambling addiction include:

•irregular work hours;

•excessive time spent on personal phone calls;

•poor concentration;

•stress, poor health, mood swings;

•discomfort when discussing finances;

•personal bills received at work;

•theft, such as using the company credit card for personal expenses and not being able to repay or repay on time;

•frequently borrowing money, requests for cash advances or loans;

•boasting about winnings;

•complaining about debts more than usual;

•spending an increasing amount of time gambling during work hours and after work;

•secretiveness and dishonesty;

•deteriorating work performance;

•using the computer at work for day trading or other forms of gambling;

•organizing and being in charge of office sports pools; and

•card games at lunch.

Similar to other addictions, problem gamblers will usually not immediately admit that there is a problem. Even though problem gamblers have an average IQ of more than 120, it can be difficult for them to realize that they have lost control and that they have a problem that can no longer be fixed by winning more money.

How to help

What can HR do to help an employee? Start by looking at how gambling may be encouraged in your workplace and how you might be able to initiate changes.

What gambling-related activities have become common in the workplace? A group employee outing, such as a company-sponsored evening at the local casino, is one of the most obvious examples. Other activities may include lottery pools, sports pools and lunchtime card games played with the addition of a friendly wager (which have been known to eat up an entire paycheck). Senior management should at least be aware of all these. Circulating and posting resource and prevention information and statistics is another way of educating employees of the risks of these forms of entertainment.

It may be helpful to think of gambling as an alcohol addiction. When approaching someone whom you suspect may have a gambling problem, be clear about your position and respect personal boundaries. Provide information, not advice, and be prepared for denial or a hostile reaction. Be non-judgmental, and speak only for yourself. Use work-related observations and explain how the problem affects you and the workplace.

If a family member comes to you, encourage the person to protect financial interests. Some of the strategies of which they should be aware include refusing to co-sign loans, removing names from joint credit cards and accounts, keeping personal identification numbers private, notifying creditors of the gambling problem and advising friends and other family members of the problem to discourage money lending. Most importantly, don’t bail out the gambler.

The employee who is suffering from this progressive, devastating illness needs help. Underneath the bravado, the denial and the veneer of “everything is fine,” is someone trying to function in a world that seems increasingly chaotic and out of control while believing that everything can be fixed with a big enough win. The loss of self esteem, emotional pain, shame and guilt become overwhelming and contribute to the feelings of hopelessness and desperation with suicidal thoughts and attempts as the illness progresses.

Gambling as entertainment will continue to have a major, and probably increasing, role in Canadian society. The majority of players appear able to participate without difficulty. Those who do succumb to its addictive nature require understanding and the hope that with help, treatment and support they can restore their lives to health and productivity.

There are a number of health-care resources and support groups available to help a problem or compulsive gambler. Company employee assistance programs can be used for short-term counselling and can provide assistance or referral to more comprehensive treatment. Most provinces offer outpatient counselling services. Self-help support groups include Gamblers Anonymous and Gam-Anon (which provides help for family and friends). As well, the family physician should not be overlooked as a resource.

How much do Canadians gamble?

Possibly two per cent to six per cent of the population has some level of gambling problem (due to its hidden nature an exact figure is difficult to determine).

In the last decade, gambling activities have progressed from lottery tickets, bingo or the races to Canadians wagering $18 billion in 2000 at the 100,000 places where a wager can be made.

In 2001, net revenue from government run lotteries, video lottery terminals (VLTs) and casinos reached more than $10.7 billion, four times the level of 1991. Of this, $6 billion was profit, three and a half times the profit made in 1992.

In 2000, lotteries accounted for 30 per cent of all net non-charity gambling revenue, casinos 32 per cent, VLTs 25 per cent and slot machines outside casinos 13 per cent.

Average gambling expenditure per person age 18 and older in 2000 ranged from $106 in the territories to $536 in Manitoba. On average, every Canadian aged 18 and older spent $424 gambling in 2000, compared to $130 in 1992. These figures do not include First Nations casinos and bingo, charity casinos or illegal gambling and Internet gambling.

The lure of gambling

It’s not uncommon for someone with both a cocaine and gambling addiction to sell the last of their drugs to keep “playing the slots.” Such is the power of the gambling addiction.
Ongoing research into the neurochemistry of addiction has identified some of the neurotransmitters affected by the gambling experience, for example, seratonin and dopamine. One study found gambling activates the same neural pathways in problem gamblers as a drug craving does in cocaine addicts.

Patricia Davies is the program development and problem gambling specialist at Bellwood Health Services, Inc., a Toronto-based facility providing treatment for alcohol, drug, gambling and sexual addictions, and eating disorders to clients across Canada and the United States since 1984. For further information visit or call 1-800-387-6198.

Latest stories