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Problem Gamblers Pose Workplace Safety and Security Risks

Spread of legal gambling can distract, lead to financial problems

In many ways, gambling has become the great American pastime, and employers should take note.

Legalized gambling has spread virtually to every corner of the U.S. as most states have passed laws to allow pari-mutuel betting or lotteries, and courts have ruled that Native Americans can operate casinos on tribal-owned lands. This proliferation of legalized gambling poses a workplace challenge that many employers may be overlooking, according to Thomas Broffman, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at Eastern Connecticut State University.

“Americans now spend more money on gambling than any other entertainment expense,” Broffman said. “Gambling is entrenched in our society and really has become so much more socially acceptable in the past 20 to 30 years, but with this acceptance comes more risk.”

Employees who can't control their gaming activity can pose safety and security threats to the businesses that employ them, Broffman said. They tend to be more distracted and stressed at work, which can lead to productivity and safety issues.

Distracted workers tend to be more careless and accident-prone, while people with elevated stress levels can have more health problems such as high blood pressure, ulcers, depression and heart disease. Moreover, problem gamblers often struggle with debt, and these financial problems can increase the risks of employee theft and embezzlement.

“It is very much a safety and security issue that many employers are neglecting,” Broffman asserted. “Research suggests that only 25 percent of employers actually have formal policies that address gambling in the workplace.”

Approximately 66 percent of the respondents to a poll the Society for Human Resource Management released in April 2013 reported that they did not have formal workplace gambling policies. Broffman and other sources familiar with the issue contend that gambling policies are essential and provide the standards and guidelines employers must have when addressing it.

“Although the vast majority of employers have substance abuse policies to help them guide how the problems and issues are addressed in the workplace, gambling policies aren’t very common,” said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling in Washington, D.C.

An Addiction, Not a 'Disability'

Employer awareness of the risks involved with problem gambling is increasing, but change is coming slowly, Whyte asserted. The American Psychiatric Association drew some attention to the issue in May 2013 when it reclassified problem gambling as a behavioral addiction in the fifth edition of its Diagnostic Statistical Manual.

“Employers and employee assistance professionals should be aware of this reclassification,” said Broffman. “EAP [employee assistance program] literature doesn’t focus much on problem gambling or the fact that it should be considered an addictive behavior.”

Although the change now places gambling in the same category as drug and alcohol addictions, the U.S. Congress explicitly excluded gambling from being considered a protected disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This exclusion, combined with outdated perceptions of problem gambling as a character flaw, often has led to employers’ callous treatment of workers who struggle with problem gambling.

“Most employers deal with employees who have a gambling problem much differently than they do with those who are struggling with alcoholism or drug addictions,” Broffman said. “This is why training supervisors to recognize the signs of employees who are having trouble and then encouraging them to seek help is crucial.”

In speaking to employers and business groups about the issue, Broffman is hoping to raise awareness.

“I’ve definitely been on the ‘rubber chicken’ circuit lately and talking with local chambers of commerce, Rotary and Kiwanis clubs to spread the word,” he said. “Meeting with local business leaders like this has been very helpful, and I’ve learned a lot about the challenges they face every day.”

Counseling and Treatment

Whyte and Broffman agree that the best resources available to employers of all sizes are EAPs. Most EAP providers can refer individuals to counseling services for dealing with addictions, including problem gambling. Still, even as employees with drug addictions are offered counseling and rehabilitation support, employers often will show employees with gambling addictions the door.

“It’s a tough choice because often an employer just wants to cut its losses and let an employee go,” said Whyte. “But at the same time, an employee who has a gambling problem might also be an extremely valuable asset to an organization.”

Problem gamblers tend to be risk takers and highly analytical and have dynamic personalities, Whyte claimed.

“Many of the traits you see in problem gamblers are also highly prized by employers in workers who they tend to call self-starters and go-getters,” Whyte said. “So it can certainly be in the best interest of employers to help problem gamblers find the support they need.”

Treatment for gambling addictions can be very effective, with a recovery rate as high as 75 percent for those who participate in rehabilitation programs, according to Broffman.

Groups like the National Council on Problem Gambling and the Association of Problem Gambling Service Administrators (APGSA) offer a variety of resources to employers and individuals who are seeking help, such as web-based screening tools.

The APGSA represents many of the state and local government agencies that provide assistance programs for problem gambling. With the advent of state-operated lotteries and increases in other gaming venues, 39 states now provide some form of assistance for problem gambling, such as toll-free helplines. Many of these support services and resources are also available online.

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.

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