High rolling at work

20 Jun 2008

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The internet has made gambling easier and more discreet than ever before, and some Irish employees who have fallen foul of the addiction are feeding it repeatedly — at work.

As a nation, Ireland has always approved of taking the odd bet — whether it’s as part of the jolly green army that makes its way to Cheltenham each year or Easter Monday at the Fairyhouse races. Sure it’d be rude not to.

But like most pleasures in life, too much of a good thing can be bad for you, and like alcohol and drugs, gambling can morph into a serious addiction with the resulting ramifications for family, friends and finances.

The high-speed instant gratification of internet games and the levels of privacy they offer can also exacerbate the problem of pathological gambling, especially in the workplace where almost every computer is connected to the internet. As a result, pathological gamblers can easily disguise their activities.

Colin O’Driscoll, a psychologist at the Forest Clinic in Wicklow, an addiction treatment centre, says: “With the internet it is much easier to conceal gambling in the workplace, and therefore the problem can become more pronounced. The person with the addiction doesn’t have to physically go to a betting shop or get cash; they can do it from the office. They are also less able to understand the consequences.”

O’Driscoll says it is only when the debts accrued from compulsive gambling reach a certain magnitude that an addict will admit they have a problem. “In treatment terms, when people present themselves, they are usually in debt of up to three times their annual salary. Like other addictions such as alcohol or drugs, it begins with a lot of secrecy, but it can start to surface in the workplace or in a relationship.

“The person will lie to cover up their activity but when the money runs low they will beg, borrow or steal. It’s only when everything’s gone that there’s no debate any more. They’ve found their own virtual rock bottom.”

O’Driscoll says that while the typical gambling addict is a man, more women are falling into the trap.

He suggests employers keep an eye out for a number of tell-tale signs that occur when an employee is hiding a gambling addiction. “The first is a drop in productivity. When the gambler is near to realising they have a problem, most areas of their lives have already begun to fall apart. They suffer from depression, anger, lethargy and often do not bother turning up for work.

“Once discovered, an employer must have an empathetic approach and reach out a helping hand to steer the staff member in the direction of appropriate treatment.”

Mark O’Donnell, head of executive selection at Deloitte, says employers who encounter online gambling addiction in the workplace will generally notice an employee’s performance tailing off. “They’re not as good as they used to be, and when you scratch the surface you realise there’s an underlying problem of gambling or alcohol.

“In one particular case, a male employee’s quality of work diminished when he showed a change of behaviour and his punctuality suffered. He was married with kids and under so much pressure trying to make good his losses from gambling. The stress of hiding it actually led to his leading a double life for a while. He had taken out two extra credit cards which were both maxed — his wife didn’t know about them.

“Originally he was a social gambler, backing horses on a race day, but the internet accelerated it for him. In this case he wasn’t accessing it on the work laptop but waiting until his wife went to sleep. Suddenly it was 3am before he’d go to bed. His appearance also began to suffer.”

O’Donnell says the individual worked for a medium to large-sized company. Having brought in a doctor and an occupational psychologist, his employer was able to get him treatment. “He is still with the company today.”

O’Donnell says firms that provide employees with devices such as laptops, and more recently BlackBerry email handsets, need to keep a close eye on how employees use them for personal gain. “An employee could be on the road or out to lunch and decide to have a bit of a flutter. Just because they’re not in the office doesn’t mean it’s not company time and a company device.

“Again, firms need a robust IT usage policy and make it clear to employees that from day one, accessing anything that is inappropriate and against company policy can result in dismissal.”

Paying the price

According to a recent UK survey conducted by Morse, online gambling is costing the average business over €386,000. It also found that 30pc of the 664 office employees surveyed confessed to placing a bet during working hours. Some 38pc of these were male and almost half (46pc) were aged between 25 and 34.

Philip Wicks, the report’s author, believes gambling addiction at work is placing a huge productivity strain on employees and highlights the need for employers to focus on enforcing acceptable internet usage.

“You wouldn’t just let people wander out of the office and go down to the bookies,” he says.

“Typical online activity ranges from people checking out a gambling site for a few minutes to, in some extreme cases, spending three hours out of the working day on such sites. There’s a lot of implicit trust in organisations today. You give employees access to the internet in the expectation that they will be more productive. However, unchecked, members of staff could become habitual users of websites, be they gambling or social networking.”

Wicks is not suggesting that employees should be spied upon. Instead he believes in the effective use of policies, procedures and technology to monitor staff.

“Employees need to be aware of the implications of their actions. Businesses should have a policy on acceptable usage and the technologies to control access to particular sites.”

Backing a race to the bottom line

Ken Robertson of Paddy Power Bookmakers says the firm’s internet business may be growing at a rate of 20pc year on year but it has steps in place to counteract online gambling addiction.

“We are cognizant of the fact that we have a duty of care to our customers and subscribe to an industry-funded initiative called GamCare that offers counselling to people with gambling addictions. We also have a number of systems that monitor users’ betting patterns so we have checks and balances in place.

“We do everything to encourage people in danger of a gambling problem to realise that for themselves. When people register with us they set a limit, and our site won’t let them gamble beyond that. We also look at average staking patterns and have software to warn us if someone is staking beyond their means.”

He adds: “Self-exclusion is an option. If a person has decided they’ve gone too far, they just tick a box and can never return to Paddy Power. If they’re an addict they will try to come back the next day, but we have a daily self-exclusion report that monitors people’s IP addresses and credit card numbers, so they can’t. Our research indicates gambling addiction affects 1pc of users.”

If you, a colleague or a relative have a gambling addiction, the following services may be able to help:

http://www.gamblersanonymous.ie/

A fellowship of men and women who have joined together to do something about their own gambling problem and help other compulsive gamblers.

http://www.treatmentinireland.com/

A treatment centre for a range of personal issues, including gambling addiction, chemical dependency, recent tragedy or loss, depression and debilitating stress.

By John Kennedy

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com