The odds on losing your job

Internet and telephone betting are making it easier to gamble at work. But what starts as a little flutter can get out of hand. Meg Carter reports
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For most of us, office sweepstakes and lottery syndicates are just a bit of fun. "In the workplace, such participation in the `soft end' of gambling is often seen as positive for team building," says Dr Mark Griffiths, senior psychology lecturer at Nottingham Trent University and one of Britain's leading experts in gambling addiction.

However, growing availability of existing and new forms of gambling - such as over the Internet, by telephone and "spread betting" - poses a problem for those likely to let their flutter get out of hand, he believes. And the side-effects for a gambler's family and work colleagues can be disastrous (see box).

Michael is in his early fifties. He has spent most of his career in a variety of administrative roles, working for businesses and charities across the south of England. Today, however, he is unable to hold down a job because of an addiction to gambling which started at work and escalated, he believes, as a direct result of growing opportunities to bet in office hours.

"I first came into contact with gamblers at work," he confides. "We used to play at lunchtime - anything really, cards, snooker - and gamble on the outcome."

Soon, however, it had taken over his life. He began to choose jobs where he could slip away from work unnoticed. And he made frequent excursions "to the shops", invariably ending up in the local bookies.

Michael is now working to overcome his addiction, but remains concerned about the dangers of gambling at work which, he fears, many employers ignore. "With the growth of telephone betting and the development of gambling over the Internet, companies could soon face a big problem," he predicts. "Nowadays you don't even have to leave your desk. You just open credit accounts with two or three different firms and pick up the phone."

The market research company Mintel estimates that the British will spend an estimated pounds 32m on gambling this year, ranging from the National Lottery, scratchcards and bingo at the soft end to bets on horse racing, football and other events through bookmakers and in casinos. This is more than double what we spent in 1990, and looks set for rapid growth with the growing accessibility of gambling.

A report published last year by Datamonitor, another research firm, suggests Internet gambling - which offers on-line betting services accessible round the clock - has transformed from a novelty to a business over the past 12 months and predicts it will generate turnover worth $2.86bn (pounds 1.75bn) by 2001.

It was in the City that one of the fastest-growing forms of gambling was born, back in the Eighties. Spread betting grew out of financial traders' addiction to the buzz of speculating with other people's money on stocks and shares - it was only a matter of time before they started betting their own. Initially it involved betting on the next day's prices on the Dow Jones or FTSE. However, bright sparks soon saw the potential to extend the principle to sports and other events.

The basic idea is that you bet against a spread of predictions - for example, that there will be between 310 and 320 runs in a cricket match innings. Unlike traditional fixed odds betting, however, the rules allow varying odds throughout the event and you can constantly update your bet as events unfold. While you can win significant multiples of your original stake, you risk losing substantially more, too.

Since then, spread betting's growth beyond the Square Mile has been rapid. "When we launched back in 1992, the number of spread bets being executed was a couple of hundred a week. Today it's grown to more than 25,000," says Lindsay McNeile, finance director of one of the leading spread betting specialists, Sporting Index. Five years ago, 50 per cent of Sporting Index's clients worked in financial services. Today, the figure is just 10 per cent - a trend endorsed by the biggest bookmaker, Ladbrokes, which launched its own spread betting service last year. Ladbrokes' spread bet account holders now also include postmen, cab drivers, plumbers and policemen. A quarter of them earn between pounds 10,000 and pounds 20,000 and nearly 60 per cent are aged between 35 and 54.

"We know gambling at work is happening and suspect it's on the increase as gambling becomes a mainstream activity," says Paul Bellringer, director of GamCare, a charity launched last autumn to help people with gambling problems. "We are now planning to do work in this area to highlight the issue."

One organisation already working with gamblers at work is PPC UK, which provides employee counselling services to more than 160 companies. "It's impossible to make generalisations about just who is most at risk," says Pauline Bratton, PPC's customer services director. "It's not something which is specific to any social group, but it is affecting a growing number of people."

PPC figures show that financial issues, particularly debt, are a major reason for individuals taking up their services.

Part of the problem stems from British employers' reluctance to acknowledge gambling as a problem. "In the US, there are employee training programmes for pathological gamblers," says Dr Griffiths. "Here there's a refusal to acknowledge it as a health issue."

As a hidden addiction, it is one of a range of behaviours of which employers should be aware, he adds. "Some people gamble at work. Others' work is suffering from the effects of gambling. It affects not only their work performance but their relationship with their boss," Ms Bratton adds.

Under Health and Safety Executive guidelines, employers must take on responsibility for the effects that jobs or work environment have on the mental state of their staff, she says. "They have an obligation to look after the physical and the mental state of their employees."

External providers of counselling support services like PCC are one possible solution. Even so, many companies are still holding back. Perhaps they should reconsider, before it's too late.

`You get sucked in'

"I used to get involved in card schools on the shop floor. Then company directors began taking an interest and invited a few of us to join them in the boardroom after work. That's when it got into the serious money," says "John", a 27-year-old resident of the London gamblers' refuge Gordon House.

Until recently, John was employed by a pharmaceutical company where gambling openly took place on the premises during tea breaks and over lunch. "When you first start work you gamble a lot more heavily because you have access to money," he explains. "You then start working longer hours to make up what you're losing."

John's problem was exacerbated by the gambling habits of some of the company executives. "I played poker with the bosses for nine-and-a-half months and as far as I know, this is still going on there," he says.

While typical losses when gambling with his colleagues were pounds 50, the stakes upstairs began at pounds 50 a head. Although he won the first couple of times, he soon got into debt, losing both his own and workmates' money.

"No one forces you to join as such, but when you want to leave the aggravation starts," he says. "You only want to quit when you're ahead. They then say: `No, you've got to give us a chance to win our losses back.' You get sucked back in."

Gambling is an illness, John believes. While many are content to stick with an occasional flutter, those with an addictive personality are likely to get hooked "for the kick".

Aside from receiving threats of violence over money owed, he has also lost his job, his partner and the family home. He has, however, been "clean" of gambling for the past 11 weeks.

"John" is not his real name.