Turn on the TV, browse the internet or walk along a high street up and down the country and you would do well to not come across an advert encouraging you to place a bet on an upcoming sporting event. As 2005’s Gambling Act – written long before the rise of smartphones – continues to be less reflective of today’s consumer, it’s easy to see how a thriving sports betting industry has outmanoeuvred legislation to introduce a deluge of aggressive marketing, minimal self-exclusion and so-called ‘free bets’ to their advantage.
Meanwhile, we’ve all grown used to seeing sports betting companies sponsoring our favourite teams; in fact, half of Premier League clubs are set to be sponsored by gambling companies this year. It’s all too easy to see this bookmaking boom as just a bit of harmless fun, but look closer and there are many stories of problem gamblers whose addictions have led to crippling debts. As deputy Labour leader and gambling reform advocate Tom Watson says: “Problem gambling is Britain’s hidden epidemic” – a label reinforced by the shocking statistic that there are more than 400,000 problem gamblers in the UK and a further two million at low or moderate risk of addiction.
While responsible gambling initiatives – including campaigns such as ‘When the fun stops, stop’ – are out there, often the conversation is around prevention. No one actually talks about how to support those already affected by betting addiction and struggling with the consequences in their day-to-day lives. Employers have a pivotal role to play in this area and, with the new football season beginning this weekend, there is no better time for businesses to act.
Money issues can cause anxiety and depression, negatively impacting on self-esteem, health, work performance and productivity. Many employers recognise that there is a mutual benefit in supporting employees who may be grappling with huge debts, by providing access to services that can mitigate these harmful consequences.
I suggest employers approach this issue with two separate objectives. The first objective is to provide emotional support to those who have identified that they have an issue with gambling and are seeking help. We already know employees tend to embrace the option of a mobile phone app to access company communications and benefits – especially geographically dispersed workforces with limited access to office-based support.
One really affordable support method that can be offered to the entire workforce is an employee assistance programme, providing access to a 24-hour helpline, counselling support and debt and legal advice. In April 2019 we recorded an 84 per cent year-on-year uplift among men using the app to access the support helpline. Given how often sports betting companies target men who are gambling on either their smartphone or laptop, the potential support that can be offered to what is traditionally a hard-to-reach male demographic needing advice can be particularly valuable.
The second objective is to provide practical solutions and tools to enable employees to tackle the financial implications of the problem once they feel emotionally ready. Today there are a number of providers employers can turn to, which can provide the financial support needed to recover financially from the damaging consequences of gambling issues. These include free financial education and advice and access to rates and loan products that may not ordinarily be available to the employee.
Heading into a new football season, the relationship between the gambling industry and sport is stronger than ever. As employers we have a clear opportunity to ask ourselves whether we are doing enough to provide access to the support that is sorely needed by so many, to help workforces to reassess their relationship with gambling and to make it clear to the many individuals who may be struggling to cope with the toxic consequences of sports betting that there is no need to suffer in isolation.
Deborah Frost is chief executive of Personal Group