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March Madness mayhem: Workplace help or hindrance?

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN
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Office March Madness
  • As March Madness begins, office pools and basketball become part of workday
  • One company says employers stand to lose $1.8 billion this week due to distractions
  • Psychologist says shared ritual boosts sense of belonging in workplace
  • Positive cohesion comes for free, and employer wins, psychologist adds

(CNN) -- As the NCAA basketball tournament kicks into gear this week, March Madness once again spreads out of arenas and into the workplace.

Diehard and fair-weather fans alike will take part in office pools, games will be streamed online, and smack will be talked around water coolers.

"People love Cinderellas," the come-from-behind stories, said Stewart Mandel, a senior writer for who covers basketball and football. "People love bragging when they pick something right."

Read Mandel's analysis of the brackets

And, amid all this game monitoring and chatter, some say productivity and earnings may take a hit, but others say the shared experience bolsters business.

The first week of the tournament -- when the most games are played during daytime hours -- could cost U.S. employers as much as $1.8 billion, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a global outplacement company in Chicago, Illiniois, that annually predicts the tournament's impact.

This blow to employers is based on surveys showing that 45 percent of Americans enter office pools and waste on average about 20 minutes a day focusing on basketball instead of work. Challenger, Gray & Christmas says that translates to more than 58 million employees.

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"Employers can no longer claim to be caught off guard by the annual event," firm CEO John Challenger said in a written statement. "Some have tried to squash these pools, most simply ignore them and others have found ways to embrace the tournament as a team-building and morale-boosting opportunity."

But this figure on time and money lost seems "plucked out of thin air," said Don Forsyth, a psychologist who studies group dynamics in the workplace in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond in Virginia.

Who is to say how much time and money people waste each day on personal distractions, he asked. And maybe, he added, the employee who generally dreads going to work comes in energized because of the games.

Forsyth, who's been studying work dynamics for 30 years, said the shared experience of feeling the madness probably does the workplace good and leads to gains instead of losses.

"It's a powerful social process," he said. "It builds relationships and rituals within the group. Everyone is included," from the corner offices to the mailroom.

"People on the fringe get drawn in. It builds cohesion," he continued. "You'd pay an expert to come in to do that for your company. March Madness does it for free."