“Men don’t talk face to face, they talk shoulder to shoulder” – In a Shed!

A shed, ‘man-cave’ or den has traditionally been the male of the species’ bolt-hole and escape from the world and the stresses therein… and who doesn’t benefit from a bit of ‘me-time’ now and again? However, being a social species hiding away isn’t going to fix our ills and by isolating ourselves we might paradoxically be damaging our mental health in the long-term or at least not be open to another world out there with social interaction and the proven benefits that have been known about for millennia.

Now no one is suggesting you tear down the shed or even invite others into your sacred space but there is a movement out there that you might be interested in, Men’s Sheds! That’s right – a shed with company and support – making and mending ‘stuff’ – hanging out and interacting – the bits missing at the end of the garden on your lonesome!

The UK is among the most socially isolated countries in Europe, according to research published in June 2014 by the Office for National Statistics. Asked whether they feel close to people in their local area, 42% said they did not – the highest proportion after Germany and according to a 2014 survey by Age UK, more than one million people over 65 in the UK are often or always lonely, an increase of 38% on the previous year. Two-fifths of respondents said that their main form of company is the television.

In Australia in the 1990s a number of issues were raised about men’s health. In Australian culture, there was little encouragement for men of all ages to socialise and discuss their feelings and well-being. This problem was identified at a men’s health conference in the mid-1990s and plans were put in place to improve a number of aspects relating to men’s health.

For a long time, research has shown the negative impact of loneliness on a person’s health and well-being. With loneliness and mental health issues are at epidemic proportions  something has to be done and it would seem that sheds although no universal panacea may provide part of the answer. Recently we have seen more evidence come to light that shows loneliness and isolation can be as hazardous to our health as obesity and excessive smoking. Surveys from mental health charities are finding that millions of people report feeling lonely on a daily basis. The Campaign to End Loneliness, a national network set up in 2011, believes the issue is a “public health disaster” waiting to happen. Scientific research shows that for older people, loneliness is twice as unhealthy as obesity, as it is linked to high blood pressure, strokes and a weakened immune system. Laura Ferguson, the director of the campaign, says: “This needs to be a top priority for every local health and care service. We need national leadership and investment on this issue or we may end up pushing already stretched services to breaking point.”

One in five of the UK population is an older man (aged over 65 years), and although men report better health than women, their mortality rates are higher. Loneliness and social isolation are also common in this age group, and are known to be associated with poorer health outcomes.

Older men find it harder than women to make friends late in life, and are less likely to join community based social groups that tend to be dominated by women. They also use fewer community health services than women, and are less likely to participate in preventive health activities. This combination of greater needs and lower rates of engagement with services has prompted the third sector to develop a range of interventions specifically targeted at older men.

There has been a huge trend in society in recent decades towards individualism, the result of affluence and commercialisation. Companies want us to live in one-bedroom flats, with our own washing machines and computers. We are boxing off people and sticking them in open plan offices to stare at screens. On the factory floors there was banter, there was interaction and men in particular miss that but paradoxically are less likely to recognise their need for social interaction and are less well provided for by the community sector. “The offer is wrong and made in the wrong way,” says Mike Jenn chair of both the UK Men’s Sheds Association and the Camden Town Shed. “Men are programmed to believe they can look after themselves. They don’t directly see that their life could be enriched by being with others so they end up hiding away watching TV. If you want a man to do something, don’t ask him to volunteer, tell him there is a problem and it needs fixing.”

In many ways men’s sheds can be seen as extension of the original nineteenth century idea of working men’s clubs in the UK and Australia: “to provide recreation and education for working-class men and their families”. In time working men’s clubs increasingly focused on charitable work and recreational activities typically associated with pubs which at least in the UK are closing at an alarming rate and thus many local community hubs are disappearing fast – social media too can be isolating as no matter how many ‘friends’ are out there one is essentially alone.

Men’s sheds or community sheds are non-profit organisations that originated in Australia with a remit to “…advise and improve the overall health of all men.” However some have expanded their remit to anyone regardless of age or gender and have similar aims and functions to hackerspaces. They normally operate on a local level in the community, promoting social interaction and aim to increase quality of life as well as mental and physical well-being.

Men typically find it more difficult to build social connections than women, and unlike women of a similar age, less older men have networks of friends and rarely share personal concerns about health and personal worries. It is not the case for all men, but for some, when retirement comes, it can feel like personal identity and purpose is lost. Men’s Sheds can change all of that.

The slogan for men’s sheds is “Shoulder To Shoulder”, shortened from “Men don’t talk face to face, they talk shoulder to shoulder”, adopted after the 2008 Australian Men’s Shed Association (AMSA) conference and users are known as “shedders”. In 2014, Prof Barry Golding coined the term “shedagogy” to describe “a distinctive, new way of acknowledging, describing and addressing the way some men prefer to learn informally in shed-like spaces mainly with other men.” Sheds as a venue for mentoring other men and Inter-generational mentoring is a growing outcome. Academics are using men’s sheds as a research venue and research partner in exploring men’s health and social needs. Prof Barry Golding in his inquiry suggests that an emergent theory of shedagogy’ offers a form of learning that is intrinsically averse to external control. The ‘grassroots’ shed model positively challenges general preconceptions about many aspects of adult learning, in this case the specific difficulty of enabling men’s agency and learning in community settings, including for and by older men. This analysis of the men’s shed movement concludes the ability of diverse men, particularly those beyond the paid workforce, to take responsibility for several of the key social determinants of health, including their learning and well-being. Sheds are also flexible and diverse as a bottom up, ‘grassroots’ movement to work in very diverse cultural and community contexts and informally connect otherwise very disconnected men (unemployed, retired, with a disability, withdrawn from the paid workforce) to a range of services without problematising and patronising them. This includes some men with ambivalence and significant negativity towards learning. On one hand, ‘shedagogy’ as postulated, is conservative, in that it reinforces and celebrates some traditional ways of being a man and doing things together, ‘shoulder to shoulder’. On the other hand, it is radical in that it is based on models of community involvement that is democratic and inclusive, which eschews negative and hegemonic masculinities, is respectful of women, encourages salutogenic (health promoting) behaviour and learner autonomy.

UK Men’s Sheds Association, the support body for Men’s Sheds across the UK. We work hard to inspire and support the development of as many Men’s Sheds as possible, for the benefit of men’s health and wellbeing. We are a member organisation, representing UK-based Men’s Sheds. We raise awareness of the Men’s Sheds movement and the many benefits of Shedding and we support Men’s Sheds in getting off the ground and thriving as community-driven, member-led entities. We don’t own or manage Men’s Sheds, but we champion them for miles around.

Our mission is to enable access to a Men’s Shed for every man that would benefit from one and we won’t stop until we’ve achieved it.

We provide support and guidance to individuals and groups across the UK in starting and managing Men’s Sheds. We raise awareness of the social and health benefits of Men’s Sheds in reducing isolation, loneliness and in empowering local communities.

We support the growth of Men’s Sheds by:

  • Promoting the Men’s Sheds movementso as many people as possible know about them. We want Men’s Sheds to be a household name so that every man knows what they are and how to find one.
  • Promoting individual Men’s Shedsto help put interested members of the community in touch with their nearest Men’s Shed. We do this by maintaining an up-to-date map of UK Sheds on our website, through social and print media and by forwarding enquiries to the relevant local Shed groups and attracting support for member Sheds.
  • Providing advice and guidance on starting up and running a shedto help grow the number of UK Men’s Sheds. We do this by providing practical information guides, example documents and toolkits on topics such as registering as a charity, insurance, funding, sourcing equipment and venues, and volunteer recruitment. We provide telephone, email and in-person support to individuals and groups wanting to start a Men’s Shed. We equip them with the knowledge to develop and sustain a thriving Men’s Shed in their community for years to come.
  • Training volunteer Ambassadorswith experience of starting their own Men’s Sheds to mentor and guide like-minded individuals and groups in starting and managing Men’s Sheds across the UK.
  • Holding networking events to connect menfrom different Men’s Sheds across the UK. Here they can share experiences, knowledge and skills, and make friends for life with others who share interests and a common purpose.

We raise awareness of Men’s Sheds and their many benefits by:

  • Talking about the social and health benefits of Men’s Shedsin reducing isolation and empowering local communities. We do this through various communication channels, including public events, online and in the media.
  • Representing our members and the UK Men’s Shed movement at a local, national and international level.We do this by liaising with organisations, government authorities, companies, other Men’s Shed associations and related charities, to help develop partnerships, generate funding opportunities and negotiate sponsorship deals to deliver real value to our Member Sheds.

Sheds are whatever the Shedders want them to be. Although labelled sheds, they often aren’t sheds at all. They can be empty offices, portable cabin’s, warehouses, garages, and in at least one case, a disused mortuary. Some Sheds are purpose-built workshops, but they rarely start out that way. Many don’t have premises at all in the beginning and instead form a group that meets regularly for the social connection, company and camaraderie until they can find somewhere to kit out with tools. Many Sheds get involved in community projects too – restoring village features, helping maintain parks and green spaces, and building things for schools, libraries and individuals in need.

Activities in Sheds vary greatly, but you can usually find woodworking, metalworking, repairing and restoring, electronics, model buildings or even car building in a typical Shed. Sheds typically attract older men, but many have younger members and women too. Whatever the activity, the essence of a Shed is not a building, but the connections and relationships between its members.

Sheds are about meeting like-minded people and having someone to share your worries with. They are about having fun, sharing skills and knowledge with like-minded people and gaining a renewed sense of purpose and belonging. As a by-product of all of that they reduce isolation and feelings of loneliness, they allow men to deal with mental health challenges more easily and remain independent, they rebuild communities and in many cases, they save men’s lives.

Mike Jenn is chair of both the UK Men’s Sheds Association and the Camden Town Shed and in 2011 was the first to be led by the community. “I saw there was a social need and I wanted to demonstrate you could do something about it without money,” says Jenn. The Camden shed costs £5,000 a year to run and is 95% self-sufficient, funded by members’ donations, product sales and by running training for the local community. Almost all of the wood and tools are either scrap that has been found or donated by closing businesses and local people. “At the beginning, when we needed tools, all it took was four lines in the Camden New Journal. We received six car loads – almost all of it from widows, who wanted their husband’s tools to ‘go to a good home’.”

There is debate in the ‘Men’s Shed Movement’ as to whether these should be open to women too or purely a male environment. I’m not one for exclusion and personal experience suggests that women have an important role which MAY differ from the men involved – interestingly I haven’t come across ‘Woman’s Shed’ but have heard of women only days, so it can work in many ways! Sheds provide a space for older men (…and women) to meet, socialise, learn new skills and take part in activities with others. They may also engage men in informal adult learning activity, provide health related information or signposting to relevant services that they would not otherwise access. Sheds can be supported by third and private sector funding but can also be voluntary run and self-sustaining, whichever the case, all are tailored to their local context and so are not standardised.

You can find a shed near you and if you happen to be in the Teddington area you might drop in and see what we are up to in Sheddington!! (Small beginnings, big aspirations!)

Q1. Do you have a shed full of old tools that haven’t been used for a while? – Could you donate these? 

Q2. If you use your tools and shed regularly could you invite others to share and start a community shed? 

Q3. If it’s not for you can you think of someone who might benefit? Call them!

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