Gambling in Suburban Australia

Research Report – March 2019

5. Life stressors

Chapter 3 discussed the higher level of socio-economic disadvantage and lower level of reported amenity and recreational activities in Site 1 compared to Site 2, and how some participants, particularly in Site 1, reported reluctantly attending EGM venues due to a lack of affordable alternatives. Chapter 4 explored the venue environments in each site and the range of similar marketing and promotional strategies that are offered in both sites.

Moving beyond an examination of site and venue characteristics, this chapter presents findings about the social, financial, health and institutional stresses reported in each site. It describes how social stress may create conditions that leave people vulnerable to increased participation in gambling, particularly in an area where non-gambling alternatives may be scarce. These findings are reported under the thematic headings:

  • chronic social and financial stress
  • welfare and social support services struggling to meet complex needs
  • employment and under or unemployment
  • the role of social isolation, migration, grief.

Participant codes

Quotes from participants reported in the results section are coded to provide anonymous context with reference to the site (1 and/or 2), study categorisation (person who gambled [G], significant other [SO], local resident [LR], Vietnamese local resident [LRV] or professional [P]) and gender [M] or [F].

5.1 Chronic social and financial stress

In this section, we report on life stressors that were experienced in both Sites 1 and 2. Overall, participants in Site 1 reported a wider range and severity of chronic stressors than participants in Site 2. These stressors may have preceded, co-existed and/or resulted from gambling harms. Traumatic experiences - such as family breakdown, injury leading to long-term health issues, mental illness, social isolation, violence and incarceration - were reported in both sites. Participants in Site 2 more frequently reported having greater social, emotional and financial capital, which helped both people who gambled and their families manage gambling-related harms.

Participants in Site 1 frequently reported complex and strained life circumstances. Many described living in poverty. Financial stress was often described as a direct reason for gambling:

Do they wanna know why people go and gamble? 'Cause the money is not enough to live on ... But when you've got two kids with disability and they need speech therapy or they need an occupational therapist … they're two, $300 tests … There's no prospects around here, there's no big goldfield. (1GF)

Of the 16 female participants who gambled and have experienced gambling-related harm in Site 1, 15 reported multiple, chronic life stressors. For example, five of these women described themselves as single parents with full-time caring responsibilities for children with high need disabilities and with no ongoing support from other family members. All five reported having also experienced family violence (reports of these experiences will be the subject of a future paper). One woman described that the stress of overwork and caring responsibilities for six children led her to use EGMs:

I had, like, three or four jobs at the time … I was working 120 hours a week ... And I'm just, like, 'Well, work gets you nowhere'. If it does anything to you, it kills you quicker … One day rolled into the next and I'd done that for three years ... So, I started gambling to get money in to help pay for the kids. (1GF)

For men, especially in Site 1, sustained substance use, injuries, institutionalisation and isolation from family members contributed to their life stress. One male participant who gambled and experienced gambling-related harms had spent decades in both juvenile detention and adult prison and was struggling to cope with everyday activities. At the time of the interview, he was waiting to enrol in a cooking class to learn how to cook for himself.

5.2 Services struggling to meet complex needs

The need for crisis and health services in Site 1 was reportedly greater than Site 2 due to the reported strained life circumstances of local residents. Professionals noted that this demand for services is continuing to increase. In Site 1, not only were service needs high and described as increasing, one service had recently been defunded:

We used to have a drop-in group ... And it used to be centred around people with mental illness … We'd all meet on a regular basis and have coffee and do activities and stuff like that, yeah. So, the funding got cut last year. So, we don't have … a drop-in place … We used to have a caseworker as well that would help us with issues. (1GF)

One food bank in Site 1 provided emergency food supplies on a relatively large scale with a storeroom and counter service for clients to select food. This service reported providing on average emergency food packages to 30 adults and 30 children each day. No services were observed in Site 2 that matched this scale. One local community service in Site 2 reported providing emergency food once a week and another reported that local residents were more likely to drop in for social contact rather than for food parcels. Researchers also observed, for instance, an opportunity to collect free fruit and vegetables after a free church lunch in Site 2 was taken up by only a very small number of people in attendance.

5.3 Employment

A greater number of participants in Site 1 reported a connection between underemployment or unemployment and increased gambling:

I know one family, when they are busy with their work, then they don't have any problem. Till she lost the job, they have a lot of time in hand, they don't know what to do, and no income, they start gambling. (1LRV)

A professional agreed that lack of employment was a stressor that in some cases led to gambling:

They get bored at home, can't find a job, they go and do - relieve their stress or have a drink and they end up playing pokies. (1P)

Also of concern was a report from a person who gambled in Site 1 that her employment service was intending to arrange a work placement for her in an EGM venue, despite her current gambling problems:

I've got all these other issues happening like trying to get work. I'm upskilling at the moment to get work ... Well, my agency put me in hospitality but it's just - I feel that I'm just really unsure about it … One of them, I may even have to bail out because it [requires] a gaming licence … I think that's going to have a bad impact on me. (1GF)

Shift work

While this study did not specifically seek to explore the links between shift work and gambling, several connections between gambling and this type of work pattern were reported in both sites. These included how gambling related to unsociable working hours and how some professions were particularly affected, such as restaurant workers.

Gambling venues have long and late opening hours, which were described by professionals and shift workers themselves as a key feature contributing to gambling participation among these workers. The casino was often a destination for those finishing shift work in the city area:

My husband is also working at [business name] and he finish at six o'clock in the morning. We are dismissed about two or three o'clock in the morning. That gap, while waiting for him, I spent it all to casino ... Yeah because so close. (1GF)

Of participants who gambled at harmful levels, seven of 24 in Site 1 (29%) and eight out of the 20 in Site 2 (40%) also reported visiting the casino in central Melbourne in the past month.

A partner of a person who gambles described how the late working hours contributed to his gambling:

He have long hour working ... and he say, 'I could not go to bed because I get excited, I can't fall to sleep' ... I think most of the chef - Chinese chef have the habits of the gambling ... His shift is start from around five o'clock to the late night ... His available time is after work, maybe he will go to casino. (2SOF)

Some people who gambled described how shift work meant that their recreational hours didn't coincide with their friends', which led them to take up gambling as an alternative activity:

You don't actually have days off similar to your friends. So you kind of have nothing to do, you know, 'cause of, you work shift work so I guess that's probably something where you get invited to go to the pub and just, you know, start gambling I guess, that's probably part of it. (1GM)

I was working and I was studying at the same time. And I only had spare time after midnight or in the, in the meantime, ah, only casino was open after midnight for these days. And then it just start become like a habit for social activities, ah, I didn't feel like, you know, I'm playing gambling. (1GM)

Another person who gambled who did casual work for a care service as well as collecting children from school often visited venues to fill in short periods of vacant time during her workday:

Ten minutes I go … I'm no longer caring for many people now, I'm caring kids, bringing them to school. Right. While I'm waiting the pickup time, 2.30 pickup time … I go pokies again. (1GF)

Professionals described how split shifts for predominantly Asian restaurant workers were linked to gambling harms:

They get in, if they're chefs they get in at 9, 10 o'clock in the morning, they work through till 2 o'clock at the end of lunch then they have from 2 until 4. Well they're not going home, they get changed and they go to a venue. (2P)

In the Chinese community with the Box Hill area, and the worst part is Chinese restaurant workers ... when they have a break between 3 o'clock, 5 o'clock [they gamble] … I was working in this Chinese restaurant for 10 years … Sometimes they can sleep in their cars but you know, they feel - if they don't want to be in the car, then probably the TAB is the only one option they can go and stay. (2P)

5.4 The role of social isolation

Participants who gambled and their families in both sites often reported a lack of family and community social support as coexisting with gambling harms. Stressful life circumstances left many isolated from family and other potentially supportive networks, which may have provided a protective barrier to EGM use.

Gambling was reported to be the only social outlet for some participants, with professionals who worked in venues describing these as 'play centres' for the elderly. One older participant who enjoys attending EGM venues when the opportunity arises reported:

I live on my own. I'm always in a mess. I don't often have visitors, I don't drive and there's times I'd like to get out and I can't. It can get a little bit depressing … I'm getting a bit old. And me friends are disappearing. And everybody seems to be busy now … It's hard when you don't drive. Very isolating. (2GF)

Migrant participants in both sites commonly reported that a lack of usual social support and connection following migration had contributed to isolation, and that this led to use of EGMs. One female migrant in Site 1 described:

You are in the house most of the time, just working and going back home, not many friends etc. (1GF)

The partner of a person who gambled in Site 2 reported that although her partner had both emotional and financial support from his family, migration had been a stressor and gambling had escalated upon arrival in Australia:

He's got limited English. He didn't have much entertainment and much friend ... I also found he felt isolated ... I can see the gambling, I think it affect him, yeah. And also affect the family. (2SOF)

Gambling provided a form of social connection for some participants for a variety of reasons. This participant from Site 2 described gambling after a family breakdown and separation as a way to cope with loneliness:

And there are times where you won't be enjoying it and particularly if you're losing, you're not enjoying it, but you feel like you're trapped there ... 'I'm going to - the next pull is going to be a win or something'. And then you think, 'Well, even if I leave now, I'm just going to walk home and, oh, you know'. Because it's in walking distance. But you feel numb just going back [home]. (2GM)

Many participants who gambled from both sites, however, described the experience as superficially social. Some initially expected to gain a social benefit from attendance at venues. However, with many people who gamble engrossed in their own EGM use, social interaction was limited and, for many, this was ultimately dissatisfying at a social level:

All gamblers I see are pretty lonesome. (2GM)

Others reported being isolated from family and friends. This isolation in some cases related to grief and bereavement, in other cases family conflict or as a result of gambling harms causing conflict with friends and relatives.

One participant who gambled described how, following the death of her mother, her gambling escalated and her relationship with other family members deteriorated:

That was the worst time of my life because my mum - I looked after my mum and we were inseparable ... My mum passed away and that's when I went a bit silly. [EGM use escalated] … and then the addiction took over … I lost my family because of it. (1GF)

Strained family relationships and grief left this participant isolated from his family and friendship networks, although he thought family support would help reduce his gambling:

My dad died when I was 14 ... I'm not close with my mum, I don't really have much family … A lot of my friends are on drugs so I'm trying to not be rude to them and trying to stay away from them because they're all hooked on either heroin or ice … Being around my family and stuff like that [would help me to gamble less]. (1GM)

One gambler described his lack of social connection following the death of his mother and brother who he had lived with throughout his adult life:

I'm like unemployed because I'm now [at retirement age] and I do things to fill in my life like - if I've got no money, I'll sit at home, watch TV, maybe have an afternoon nap … I haven't got a car … I don't follow football. Ah, I'm not a golfer … I'm not into a great deal of any other sports … the best way to put it is I'm a loner. (1GM)

Professionals also described the connection between social isolation and gambling:

A lot of people go to pokie venues because they're lonely. (1, 2P)

The best way to isolate yourself is to develop a gambling problem ... So, you often hear people saying, 'Oh yeah gambling is caused by isolation'. Often the gambling actually causes the isolation. Which again, may be triggered by another event. Like, you know, loss of job. (1, 2P)

For many, EGM venues were perceived as providing a 'safe space' for people who feel isolated:

When you feel low and you go to that place, you feel excited, you feel accepted, you feel like warmth … You feel safe. You feel when people acknowledge you and say, 'Hello, good morning' with a smile, you feel like, 'Oh they've, you know, recognised me, acknowledged me' … You sort of shake off little stuff and you feel good. (1GF)

5.5 Summary

The findings in this chapter indicate that in Site 1 in our study, where social, health and other support services were described as less accessible due to availability, cost or demand, the harms associated with gambling were increased relative to Site 2.

While a range of life stressors were identified in both sites, a higher number of chronic and crisis stressors were reported in Site 1. In Site 1, female participants in particular reported trying to manage stressful caring responsibilities for children and parents alongside intimate relationships where conflict and/or violence were common. These women were also more likely to report experiencing multiple and ongoing life stresses such as overwork, exhaustion and difficulties finding social and health services that could meet their needs. Entrenched disadvantage in this area was also demonstrated through the difficulties with everyday activities or living situations such as finding housing and employment.

Typically, professional participants and participants who gambled suggested that shift work and unemployment tended to increase engagement with gambling. However, this was not always the case: a small number of participants who gambled reported that their gambling decreased when they were unemployed due to a lack of money, and increased again when they were employed. The relationship between employment and gambling activity thus requires further research.

While participants in Site 2 also experienced a range of challenging life events, they were more likely to report having support from family and friends, and the ability to pay for additional services to support them through crises created by gambling. In both sites, participants reported loneliness and isolation as both a precursor to and consequence of their gambling.

The data we gathered from professionals and people who gambled suggest that chronic life stressors, when combined with gambling, may have more harmful effects in more disadvantaged areas, where there may be increased barriers to accessing support services. For many participants, life stressors and gambling harms were interconnected and difficult to disentangle. However, what is clear is that the presence of multiple and coexisting life stressors adversely affect the ability of people who gamble and their families to ameliorate gambling harms.