“I’ve noticed that more women have started online gambling – any suggestions?” This was a question raised during a recent Make A Difference webinar. We decided to investigate further.
UK Charity Betknowmore, which helps people take back control of their life from gambling, reports that it received more referrals in the month of May 2022 than it had in the previous six months combined. Not just from women though. Gambling can affect anyone.
In order to effectively deal with addictions at work, it’s crucial that employers have empathy and make an effort to understand what the experience is like for employees.
We spoke to Matt Smith, head of external affairs at Betknowmore, for a frank conversation about what it’s like to be suffering from this debilitating illness while also trying to (and often successfully) holding down a high-pressure job.
Matt is on a mission to destigmatise addiction, particularly gambling, by talking openly about his experience of “hitting rock bottom” when working in his dream job in radio as outside broadcast manager, jetting around the globe to cover high-profile football matches, at TalkSPORT.
When you look back at your time at TalkSPORT and hit rock bottom, what do you think were the root causes of your particular addiction, which was to gambling predominantly but also alcohol?
The breakdown in relationship with my with my boss at the time. We were really struggling to connect. We had a personality clash, didn’t get on at all and I felt that he was trying to change things around me, which I didn’t like. I didn’t feel, either, that I had the emotional capacity to deal with that properly. So, rather than have that one-to-one, proper, adult conversation with somebody, I buried my head in the sand and thought it would eventually go away. With my previous boss, who retired, I had someone who I considered to be a leader and a listener who I respected, so such a change in management style threw me.
So that relationship with your boss had a direct impact on your addictive behaviours?
Yes, definitely. Without a shadow of a doubt. I felt hard done by. I felt that I was putting in a lot of work, I was putting in a lot of effort. I felt like I was being pushed and pulled and didn’t have the support from him that I needed.
In an ideal situation, what do you think could have happened with your boss?
We could have had a conversation to see where we could find some common ground. We both wanted the best for TalkSPORT. I was fully invested in my job, there was no doubt about that. There could have been space and time made for these conversations and more honesty.
What do you think is the learning here, from your situation, for line managers and colleagues reading this profile now?
Brush up on your soft skills. The most important thing now is self-awareness. If you want to get the best out of your workforce you need awareness, empathy, kindness and compassion. Where I’m working now, Betknowmore is full of those qualities. Literally full to the brim. That starts from the top with our CEO Frankie Graham – he treats us as human beings first and foremost.
These qualities are particularly important when you’re dealing with addiction because that person is a human being, that person has been an integral part of your workforce for quite a long time, no doubt. And addiction can come at any time because our vulnerabilities can change at the click of a finger. It can happen to any of us.
Do you think feeling vulnerable drove your addiction too?
Yes. Definitely. Because I felt that my job, the place I loved to work, was being threatened. I didn’t feel I had anywhere to go. I felt very lonely and isolated. But I want to stress that none of this was my colleagues’ fault; if I’d started a conversation with them, they would have listened. But I didn’t, back then I don’t think people were having those types of conversations.
I worried ‘if I start to show this vulnerability, what are they going to think about me?’ I was gripped by self-obsession, obsessed with how I appeared to other people and what they might think.
So did you just get deeper into the addiction?
Yes. I’d gamble more and be borrowing money. I’d get to a point where I didn’t even have enough money to get to work or buy myself food. I’d have to hustle my way through. My mind was so tired. I was waking up every morning with intense anxiety, my nervous system going into overdrive. I don’t know how, but I was doing my job pretty well. Work helped me at times to escape but I felt stuck in a vicious circle.
Do you find that addictions feed off each other? You mention gambling and alcoholism.
Yes, I would say so. There are 20 of us in the gambling support group that I go to myself, for my own personal recovery, and I would say half of them are also in recovery for alcohol as well.
Did people notice your decline? I imagine you maybe didn’t look your normal self?
Not really… I wasn’t in the office that often. I travelled a lot. One colleague did talk to me about gambling, as he could see my behaviours due to being in recovery himself. That conversation stuck with me.
You’ve talked about this really high pressure media culture, coupled with big egos and lots of stress, which also fed addictive behaviour. Do you think employers have a responsibility to change a culture if it’s like that, or is that just the culture?
No, I think they’ve got a responsibility to change that culture. It’s their workforce, and they have a duty of care. Back then it was very different. We weren’t having these types of conversations. I hope in a way what happened to me has spurred people on to make those culture changes.
Obviously everyone’s story is different. But you’ve mentioned feeling a lack connection, and you’ve mentioned vulnerability. Do you think these feelings are common in addictions?
100%. When I was at TalkSPORT, I went to a lot of football matches for my job. I remember specifically being at Old Trafford, Manchester United’s ground, and I was surrounded by my colleagues. We were sitting in the press box where they were commentating on the game. And I was in the middle of about five of my colleagues with 70,000 people in the stadium. Lots of noise, and all this going on around me, but I felt completely alone and isolated. I shared that with an ex footballer the other day and he said he completely identifies with that feeling too. So yeah, you can be somewhere with your colleagues or your friends in an environment where there’s 1000s of people, but still feel disconnected.
You’ve talked about how TalkSPORT was great and tried hard to support you and keep you in your job. But, in the end, you felt you had to leave in order to overcome your addiction, is that right?
Yes, they didn’t want me to leave. They were brilliant. They sent me to counselling, which I went to for 10 weeks. And despite all the carnage that I caused through my gambling, they offered me another opportunity, said there was still a way back here if I could stop gambling. But I couldn’t. I had to go in the end because my addiction was so bad.
So I left in June 2012 but they actually paid me for six months until December. Then I had a meeting with the CEO and head of HR and they asked me if I’d stopped gambling. I hadn’t. And that’s when they said ‘Matt, we just can’t carry on like this’.
Do you think there was any other option for them?
No, I don’t see what more they could have done because I didn’t want it [help/recovery].
So, if an employer has an employee that doesn’t appear to be able to be helped, does that mean they can’t help them?
It’s a difficult one. It depends who you’ve got there who in terms of relationships around the person. Have you got somebody who’s already in your organisation who has been through the same things as that person? If you have, then there might be a way. If you haven’t, then, with people struggling with addiction, they really have to want to recover.
My experience of this is, you can’t do it for your family. You can’t do it for your work colleagues. You can’t do it because you absolutely love your job, like I did. You can’t do it because you might lose your job. You have to want to do it for yourself. Thousands of people do overcome addiction, though, and end up in long term recovery so there is always hope.
If you, or someone you know, needs help with addiction and dependency, here are some useful contacts compiled by mental health charity in England and Wales, Mind.
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