Break out brackets, it’s March Madness!

This week, 68 teams hit the court to tip-off the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. People across the country are sizing up the match-ups, putting money in the pot and filling out their brackets. Friendly office-pool season is here, and everyone (except bosses) rejoices.

In a survey early this month, MSN gauged how everyday people are approaching this year’s tournament. How many hours of work will be lost? In these tough economic times, are people more or less likely to bet on the games? Are men or women more dedicated fans? Which celebrity would people most like to watch the games with?

It’s no secret March Madness is big in the workplace. But astoundingly, 81 percent of respondents to MSN’s online survey of more than 1,000 men and women said they plan to devote at least some time during the work day to following tournament action. Sixty percent said they will spend at least one hour of work during the first two days of the tournament (Thursday and Friday) watching games or following scores online, with 18 percent saying they’ll do so for at least five hours.

“March Madness and the subsequent office pools have been going on long enough that employers can no longer claim to be caught off guard by the annual event,” said John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., a global outplacement consultancy that each year predicts the NCAA tournament’s impact on workplace productivity. Last year the firm figured the first week of the tourney alone cost employees $1.8 billion in unproductive wages.

“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,” Challenger said.

Some workers want to boost more than morale. Of those surveyed, 85 percent said they will pay in to office pools at least as much money, if not more, as the previous year. This is a drastic increase from the same survey question a year ago, when only 37 percent of respondents said they planned to partake in some form of NCAA tourney betting or pool.

A surprising survey finding is that women participate more than men in March Madness pools, with 47 percent of women saying they typically participate, compared to 40 percent of men. In addition, 27 percent of women said they plan to fill out three or more brackets, while 21 percent of men said they’ll fill out at least three. Interestingly, men are apt to be slightly more sociable than women when it comes to talking about their bracket choices. Fifty-nine percent of men said they would talk to their coworkers about their picks, compared to 56 percent of women saying they would.

Renowned University of Kentucky fan Ashley Judd was the runaway choice as a potential courtside-seat mate. Given the choice of sitting alongside celebrities Kim Kardashian, Charlie Sheen, Heidi Klum, Judd or the couple of Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, the majority stated a preference for the actress Judd. A whopping 41 percent of women picked Judd over the four other choices.