‘Hidden Disease’ of Gambling Extends to Women in Workplace

By Kathy Gurchiek Mar 20, 2008

Women are the fastest growing group of compulsive gamblers in the United States, even as gambling has increased among nearly all groups of people in recent years, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG).

Most people can gamble without harmful consequences, but for a small percentage it’s an addiction with “enormous social, economic and psychological implications,” the NCPG says.

About 2 million people—1 percent of adults in the United States—fit the criteria for pathological gamblers, and another 4 million to 6 million can be considered problem gamblers, according to the NCPG. That data is as recent as 2007, drawn from a compilation of state and national surveys, according to Keith White, NCPG’s executive director.

“There’s been a big social cultural shift” in the last 20 to 30 years in attitudes toward gambling, White told SHRM Online. Women have a lot more buying power, gambling has been democratized, outlets for gambling have expanded, and there has been a “massive promotion and endorsement” of gambling by the government, he said.

People are encouraged to gamble for a charitable cause, “whether it’s [state] education or your church Bingo,” he said, and “it’s incredibly heavily marketed by everybody,” private operators and the government alike, he added.

Opportunities for gambling are vast.

Eleven states have commercial casinos, 11 states have racetrack casinos, 28 states have Indian casinos, 42 states have lotteries, 43 states have pari-mutuel wagering, and 48 states have charitable gaming (Hawaii and Utah are the exceptions), according to the American Gaming Association.

Gambling is a problem often associated with such crimes as embezzlement, employee theft, fraud, tax evasion and insurance fraud, according to the NCPG.

It also can impact productivity, according to Isabelle Duguay, director of problem gambling services for Chicago-based Bensinger, DuPont & Associates (BDA). BDA is a national provider of employee assistance programs.

“I don’t know any [employees] who are able to function at their work” when they are at the peak of their gambling addiction, she told SHRM Online.

Unlike men who gamble, generally drawn to the thrill of risk involved, women tend to be “escape gamblers” and gamble “as a way to run away from problems in their lives,” Duguay said in a press release.

“For women, excessive gambling is often a substitute for an unhappy marriage or something else missing in their lives.”

It’s a problem that’s difficult to spot, according to the Council on Compulsive Gambling in New Jersey, because most female gamblers are “closet gamblers” who seldom brag about their wins and stick to legal gambling. Most of them also are dependent on something other than gambling—alcohol, drugs, overeating, overspending, sex—at some point in their lives, the council says on its web site.

Women account for more than 50 percent of the caseloads of counselors in states with casino gambling, according to the NCPG.

Adding to the risk of problem gambling is the speed, access and anonymity of the Internet, Duguay says, and according to the NCPG there are more than 2,500 Internet gambling sites. Online poker alone has more than 400 web sites.

What Employers Can Do

Whether an employee with a gambling problem is male or female, there are steps employers can take, Duguay told SHRM Online.

“First we have to name it,” she said, because nothing can be done by pretending the problem doesn’t exist in the workplace. Establishing a policy makes it easier to screen for the problem.

The employer sets the parameters, for example allowing unofficial office pools for a specified amount of money but prohibiting online gambling during work hours, she said.

Second, be aware of whether clinicians in the employer’s EAP are knowledgeable about gambling. Most are, Dugay said, and can conduct awareness training on substance abuse—including gambling—for managers, middle managers and employees.

Awareness is important, she said, because while HR has a mental list of problems to be on the lookout for, such as alcohol and drug abuse, they typically don’t think of gambling as among those problems.

“Compulsive gambling is called the ‘hidden disease’ because there are few overt signs of it in the workplace,” Duguay said. “However, managers need to be aware of clues to look for so they can encourage individuals to get the help they need.

Indicators can include:

  • Arriving late for work.
  • Taking long lunches.
  • Disappearing from the office in the afternoon.
  • Taking frequent and often lengthy phone and restroom breaks.
  • Using single vacation days rather than a block of time.
  • Taking sick days as soon as they become available rather than letting them accrue.
  • Coordinating office pools.
  • Asking for pay advances.
  • Reading gambling materials openly.

Screening for gambling addiction can be included during employer health fairs using tools such as the Lie-Bet Questionnaire that might result in a referral to the employer’s EAP, the National Problem Gambling Hotline or to other resources, Duguay said.

“Gambling is everywhere,” she said. “Why not give the same amount of help for this different addiction” as to others?

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org.


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