Raising the Standards in the Gambling Industry
Risk, by its very definition, is often described in gambling terms—a roll of the dice, a flip of a coin, a turn of a card, or a spin of the wheel. It is, after all, gambling with the random laws of chance if you don’t have a thought-through plan or a series of mitigation strategies in place for the outcome of where and when the dice, coin, card, or ball lands. That is the role of the risk manager, the person or department—for example, loss prevention or health and safety—whose job it is not to gamble with the family silver but to put in place plans and protocols to protect the people and reputation of a business that does not want to play fast and loose with its customers.
For many, betting is a “mug’s game”—a high-stakes past-time where you play the house, but the house always wins. For others, it’s a socially acceptable escape from the everyday that—when you understand the risks and can make an informed choice—can be enjoyed with others, a sort of “harmless flutter,” a bit of fun at the bingo or at an amusement arcade. Gambling can sometimes be viewed as a means of social or community cohesion, which has a by-product of bringing people together in a shared, low-risk activity that helps reduce loneliness for many people. With some punters perhaps more inclined to take a chance than others, there is huge potential for more to be swayed by a multi-billion-pound industry with deep marketing pockets splashing cash on television advertising and Premier League sports sponsorship deals and often endorsed by the great and the good of the beautiful game.
In reality, gambling has the potential to cause harm, and not talking about this could make these issues worse. A small-print legal disclaimer doesn’t really cut it here, especially during a pandemic, when the risks for those who are vulnerable are already heightened. Boredom, loneliness, and isolation are all recognised risk factors, and the ready availability of online gambling creates a worrying context for people who may already be struggling.
Research in 2020 by Savanta, on behalf of the Gambling Commission, highlighted that 25 per cent of the population believed their mental health has been negatively affected by the pandemic. There was also a significant financial impact, with the Savanta research revealing that 40 per cent of people saw their disposable income decrease. The research highlighted that spending most of our time in the home triggered changes in the way people engage with news and entertainment, particularly so among people who gamble.
According to YouGov data from March to 18 June 2020, those who had gambled in the past four weeks were more likely than the national average to have spent more money online on entertainment (17% of gamblers compared to 13% of all adults), watched TV more (50% of gamblers compared to 42% of all adults), and consumed more on-demand entertainment (48% of gamblers compared to 40% of all adults).
In addition, a 2020 survey commissioned by the GambleAware charity estimated that up to 2.7 per cent of adults in Great Britain, or nearly 1.4 million people, were “problem gamblers” for whom the urge to gamble overcomes the negative consequences suffered. However, experts urged caution over the figure, insisting that the true addiction rate is likely to be closer to the health survey figures of 0.7 per cent cited by the Gambling Commission, a large enough figure in itself. The report also found that as many as 7 per cent of adults, or 3.6 million people, report having been negatively affected by someone else’s gambling problem, with nearly 5 million British people having experienced the associated harm linked to gambling.
The Other Side of the Table
One risk expert knows more about this dichotomy than most. Hayley Jane Smith has professionally played both sides of the table, as it were. As the former director of risk and compliance for Buzz Bingo, previously Gala Leisure, she was in charge of strategies for protecting the people and punters across the estate of both online and physical bingo halls. She also attended regular meetings with the Gambling Commission, the industry’s governing body, to discuss strategies for managing problematic gambling.
Hayley is now senior manager for the Safer Gambling Standard at GamCare, an industry-leading charity that provides support and treatment for anyone who is harmed by gambling. It works by encouraging an effective and meaningful dialogue with the gambling industry to help promote awareness about best practice in protecting customers, feeding in over twenty years of experience working with those harmed by gambling. The charity also operates the National Gambling Helpline, which supports tens of thousands of callers every year, both gamblers and their loved ones.
GamCare’s successes are eloquently evidenced by many users of its services who realised they needed help. David, age forty-five from Stockport near Manchester, reached out to GamCare around three years ago after his online gambling habit had run up debts of almost £30,000. “I wanted to stop, but I needed support. I was on the verge of losing my family. I looked for help online and found the National Gambling Helpline. The adviser listened and guided me through a series of questions to understand my situation better. I was referred for treatment with GamCare partner Beacon Counselling Trust, and I was also put in touch with StepChange to address my finances. I found this whole experience so helpful. Even that first conversation was a major step in my recovery. The advice they gave me was amazing, and just knowing I wasn’t alone helped reduce some of the shame I was feeling.”
At first, David only bet small amounts and felt that his gambling was manageable, mostly popping into a bookmaker to place his bets. He even won occasionally and describes the thrill of a win as something that he “developed a taste for.” Eventually, he was betting daily, and he began to suffer from anxiety as he felt he was risking more and more. He decided to quit completely and managed not to gamble for three years.
When he did gamble again, he once again started with small amounts and convinced himself that gambling would not be a problem. He began to gamble online and found that the money he was spending didn’t feel “real.” He describes gambling with credit cards (something that has since been banned) as far too easy and found that gambling had once again become a daily fixture.
“I was never off my phone,” David said. “I gambled on football games, casino sites—it started to impact my work, and I couldn’t concentrate on my daily tasks. As my losses continued, I began to stake larger amounts as I was desperate to recoup what I had lost. My anxiety levels began to go through the roof, and I started to have palpitations and panic attacks regularly.
“I felt really alone. It was like I was living in a bubble, and I was present physically in my life but not mentally. I searched online for forums where others were describing similar situations, which was difficult to read but made me more aware that there were others feeling like me out there. I felt exhausted. I knew I needed to tell someone what was happening, so I could try to move past it, but I dreaded it.
“When I hit my rock bottom, I broke down at work and confided in my manager. They were really understanding, and that helped massively. They offered their full support and some time for me to try to get things under control. A few days later, my wife found out what was going on, and I felt so ashamed. I felt like I had let my family down. I tried to explain to her, but I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t get the words out. I’d already stopped gambling for three weeks, but my debts had spiralled to tens of thousands.”
David remembers this day vividly: “I went on a bender to try and drown my sorrows. I booked a hotel room and started to contemplate my life without my family. I called my brother and my best friend. Neither of them had any idea what had been happening. The following morning, hungover and racked with guilt, I realised I was acting just as my father had. He ended up staying in hotels, left penniless by failed businesses and bad investments. It was a sobering admission.”
As a result of this admission, David received face-to-face support through GamCare and Beacon over twelve weeks. At first, he said, the sessions were difficult: “I cried as soon as I started to talk about what was happening and what I had done. Over time, it did become easier for me to talk about everything, and I started to make changes for the better. The sessions helped me to realise I was only human, and I had made mistakes, but I could move past them. The therapist helping me was a great listener, and I started to feel better about myself and to move forward with my family, my work, and my life. I found healthier coping techniques for when I was feeling low, which could help me avoid gambling again.”
Support from StepChange also really helped David: “I received specialist support to help me manage my finances and set up a plan for my debtors. This meant I could carry on working and pay my debts off in a manageable way. It took away a great deal of pressure, and I felt no judgement from their team. They were amazing and really understanding of my situation, and it made a real difference.”
This GamCare case study is typical of many of the people whom the charity helps. In her new role, Hayley now wants to reach out further to the gambling industry, not just to the gaming providers but also upstream in terms of the games creators, to proactively flag up issues at the developmental stage.
From an early age, she has been aware of the power of branding and how younger players can be seduced into gaming, which could result in playing beyond their means. “I am well aware of the power of advertising and sports sponsorship,” said Hayley who is a life-long Arsenal fan. “As a ‘Gunner,’ I remember when I was young—when my family bought their first JVC video recorder—being thrilled that it was the brand that was on the Arsenal team shirt. It was a really big deal for me. I am therefore very aware of the impact of Premier League shirt advertising and the potential link to an increase in online gambling. With lockdown, there is no doubt that digital gambling is the next challenge with more and more sites launching and hundreds of online operators all vying for new audiences.”
Hayley has recognised an encouraging shift in attitudes. Since her early experience of sports shirt sponsorship for gambling companies, 2020 saw a first last year with two Championship clubs, Nottingham Forest and Queen Park Rangers, having their shirts sponsored by YGAM, the Young Gamers & Gamblers Educational Trust to promote the charity, which works alongside GamCare to provide free training and resources to help prevent gambling-related harm among young and vulnerable people as part of Safer Gambling Week in November.
Football Index, the principal shirt sponsor for both clubs, wanted to trigger a conversation about safer gambling and help the YGAM reach more football fans. Football Index also supported the YGAM’s work with a £5,000 donation. This follows Football Index’s earlier initiative in the 2020 season, which saw it launch a new Gambling Awareness Initiative with Nottingham Forest Football Club, highlighting the importance of safer gambling and helping to educate football supporters within local communities.
Daniel Bliss, director of external affairs at YGAM, said, “We’re enormously grateful to both clubs and Football Index for their fantastic support. It is vital that we educate our future generations about the potential risks associated with gambling, so we can collectively help prevent harm. The matches played during this week will provide an important opportunity to raise the profile of the charity and help us support parents, teachers, and young people across all communities.”
Hayley commented, “This was a great gesture, which sent the right messages across the whole industry. It was designed for one week to make people think.” Ideally, she would like to see more of this awareness sharing, not for just one week but all year round. But Rome was not built in a day, and these small victories, although welcome, are hard fought for.
Hayley relishes the challenge. In her new role, the mother of two is engaged in the everyday work of assessing licensed gambling operators through the charity’s Safer Gambling Standard accreditation, an independent quality standard that assesses the measures gambling businesses have put in place to protect people from experiencing gambling-related harm. Launched in 2019, the accreditation is designed to increase overall standards of social responsibility practice across the gambling industry, making gambling safer for consumers by promoting best practice and recognising gambling operators who go above and beyond the requirements of the industry’s own codes of practice. The Standard comprises ten sets of assessment criteria for social responsibility across online and land-based business-to-consumer operations. It has been designed to review organisational policies and procedures, digital and in-person interactions, protections for young and vulnerable people, and the culture of the business regarding its approach to social responsibility.
For Hayley, crossing over from industry operator to a charity that deals with the fallout of excessive gambling was as much about education as it was enforcement—getting gaming companies to understand how to be better in every aspect of their interaction with their customers. “I have worked as an operator for the majority of my career,” she said, “and this was a great opportunity to apply my knowledge to the whole sector and take the Safer Gambling Standard forward. It was also an opportunity for me to progress my passion, which is to support and protect consumers to enable them to gamble in a safe and secure environment.
“GamCare is a great organisation. I have admired their work for a number of years, and I was attracted to the fact that they are committed to raising standards in the industry, and the Safer Gambling Standard accreditation helps operators achieve that. It’s a bit like a food company that strives to get the Food Standard Agency’s five-star rating. No business wants to have a sticker on the door with one star. Raising standards is what the accreditation is all about.
“I believe my experience of working within the industry in a risk and compliance capacity provides me with in-depth knowledge and expertise of how gambling can be entertaining for people without issue. But we all must recognise that for some people it can lead to harm, and there are actions we can all take to mitigate that risk. My experience has allowed me to take a balanced approach to support operators, which I believe can only help in supporting the industry in becoming more responsible around gambling-related harms. Personally, I feel gambling businesses that approach the subject of customer protection by working collaboratively with each other and the regulator can make a real difference in minimising gambling harms. Our role at GamCare is to help them in that, and the Safer Gambling Standard is how we do that.”
Hayley now wants to go further and faster in her new capacity. She is excited by the move to talk to the industry and its upstream partners in the world of gaming development so that harm can be, as much as possible, designed out before any new game goes live.
“I want the accreditation to go further to those upstream developers, so we can be talking to the designers of online games and slot machines.
“Operators can and should do more to understand the harms that may be arising from their products, and with the Standard we are giving them a framework to do that. The impacts of gambling can be felt by those with the issue but also by their loved ones. We receive 40,000 calls on our Helpline every year and of those, 20 per cent are from those worried about other people’s gambling. Issues around debt, isolation and relationship breakdown are what we hear about all the time.”
The world of gambling promotes its activities as fun, but in line with pressure from the Gambling Commission and charities like GamCare, gambling operators must focus more on demonstrating their willingness to go further and the awareness that they must have if they are going to reduce gambling-related harm across its supply chain, from designers to card dealers, coin flickers and dice-throwers. When the chips are down, Hayley shows her hand by using her risk management experience to work directly across the industry to eradicate problem gambling at source.
If you or someone you know has issues with gambling, GamCare would urge them to contact the National Gambling Helpline on 0808 8020 133 or go online for a web chat at gamcare.org.uk.