Men's Shed why and research

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Following retirement or redundancy, men can easily lose touch with their acquaintances.  Nights out and other social events can quickly decline, and due to the difficulties men can experience in establishing new social networks, this can lead to social isolation, loneliness, depression, and a wide variety of other detrimental health problems.  Of course, not all men experience these issues, but a very significant number do, such that local doctors report an increase in the use of antidepressants and among other mental issues.  This is, tragically, often accompanied by an increase in male suicides. 

This was the case in Australia, where the concept of Men’s Sheds was first established in the 1990’s, and also in Westhill in 2010, where many men who moved to Aberdeenshire for the oil boom were moving into retirement.  In the meantime the Australians had proved the concept and had over 1000 sheds in operation; after spreading the word to the 'old country', Westhill was the first in Scotland.

The health aspect of the Men’s Shed concept has attracted enthusiastic support from local councils, national government, and the communities in which they operate, who have all expressed great concern regarding population ageing.  As a growing number of men are now living longer than at any point in history, there is an increased vulnerability to the devastating health issues common amongst older men.  Therefore, a solution to improving the health and quality of life of men, as achieved through the increased self-esteem and satisfaction gained through involvement in a Men’s Shed, is very welcome.

It should, however, be noted that individual men do not come to a Men’s Shed with the explicit aim of improving either their own health or society in general.  Though men enjoy the health benefits of their involvement, and though the good works carried out by shedders often promotes purposeful interaction between different groups within a community and provides direct benefits to deserving causes, these positive results emerge from what is actually a very simple idea.  That is, men together, working shoulder-to-shoulder, enjoying the activities they engage in, and enjoying the company of other men who, in sharing their passions, become good friends. 

Although it may seem funny, women are often the biggest supporters of their partner attending the Men’s Shed.  Research has consistently highlighted the need for couples to have their own space in a relationship, through which they can pursue their own interests.  Men’s wives or partners also appreciate the improvement in attitude and outlook of their men due to their involvement in a positive and healthy pastime.

People are very diverse of course and there are a few men who come to the Men’s Shed to drink tea and talk to others but do not do any practical work.  Indeed, you can add any reasonable pursuit to a Men’s Shed; for example, there is a bridge playing group at Westhill.  These men come for the same reason as any other; simply to enjoy the company of men who share their passion, be it conversation, cards, or workshop-based activity.  The ban on alcohol and drugs (because of the workshop and equipment therein) is another advantage for a healthy outlook.

Why is Westhill men only?  Many Men’s Sheds are mixed but we feel that the problem we are trying to solve is a male one and a mixed environment would disenfranchise some men, single men would be less comfortable, whilst also increasing the likelihood of women being uncomfortable about their husbands or partners attending the Men’s Shed.  The Men’s Shed provides a relaxed and safe environment for all shedders, which encourages them to share their stories and advice regarding health issues, and on this point, the addition of women to the Men’s Shed would certainly stifle the discussions we have about prostate cancer and other men’s health issues.

How do we know all this?  There is a large body of external research into both the personal and social issues faced by men in contemporary society, and the means through which Men’s Shed can address these.  This is detailed below for anyone who wants to delve deeper into the concept.

Research on Men and their Sheds

The majority of research into Men's Shed has been conducted in Australia, where the concept was first established in the mid-1990’s.  The most active researcher is Barry Golding, who has conducted extensive studies into a wide variety of Australian Men's Sheds.  A useful place to start for those interested in expanding their knowledge about the Men’s Shed movement is therefore Golding’s comprehensive 2015 book, which provides a detailed history of the Men’s Shed movement, case studies of locations in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and the UK, categorised as ‘innovative, ‘remarkable’, and ‘new or cutting edge’, and a thorough review of the research literature;

Golding, B (2015).  The Men’s Shed Movement: The Company of Men.  Common Ground Publishing.  Champaign. 

Though research into Men's Sheds affirms the point that each Men’s Shed is unique, with the character of each site forming through the combination of the local social context, and the particular needs and desires of the men who attend it, there have been other attempts to categorise Men’s Sheds, according to the specific functions they serve for shedders and their local communities;

Hayes, R, & Williamson, M (2007).  Men’s Sheds: Exploring the Evidence for Best-practice.  La Trobe University Press.  Melbourne.

Morgan, M, Hayes, R, Williamson, M, & Ford, C (2007).  ‘Men’s Sheds: A Community Approach to Promoting Mental Health and Well-being.  International Journal of Mental Health Promotion.  Vol. 9, No. 3, 48-52.

However one may categorise a Men’s Shed though, their positive effects on the lives of shedders have been comprehensively demonstrated, with Golding concluding, in a 2011 paper, that;

"Active involvement in practical hands-on activity in the form of voluntary and cooperative work was found to enhance men’s productive ageing.  It provided older men with the opportunities and incentives to remain fit and healthy enough to actively participate at any age; to reconnect with their past life and share hands-on skills with other men; to combat the likelihood, for some of them, of depression associated with withdrawal from the family and community; and to cope with changed abilities due to ageing".

Golding here notes two of the most important benefits that have been attributed to Men’s Sheds; (1) the chance for men to improve their health and wellbeing, through active participation in a particular project, in their Men’s Shed, and indeed in their community, and (2), the chance to utilise their skills and experience, typically gained through employment, in an informal educational environment.  These points will be considered in turn, with the details of relevant scholarship provided.  However, prior to this, the first question to address concerns the male-exclusivity of the majority of Men’s Sheds.

In the Men's Shed literature, the concept of 'masculinity' is often utilised as a convenient shorthand for capturing the complex configurations of perceptions, attitudes, and behaviours engaged in by men, that which serves to construct a personally satisfactory identity.  As Foley notes, in a 2014 paper, “there is a growing argument…in support of the benefits that sheds offer for particular groups of men.  Sheds can provide a space that fosters social relationships that are meaningful for men’s masculinity and male identity”.  In simple terms, Men’s Sheds provide a social space in which men can be men, a space that may be denied them following retirement from the workplace.  This can be difficult, for as Davidson (2013) notes, "Most men never lose their masculine identity as they age, despite failing health, reduced social and economic status...and changed living circumstances".  This point is vitally important; throughout the lifecourse, men socialise as men, work as men, love as men, and become sick and recover as men; generally speaking, they interpret their experiences as men, and ageing does not alter this self-perception.  Unlike certain community-based activities, which men may feel uncomfortable engaging in, the provision of a men’s space simply allows men to be who they are, providing a safe and comfortable social environment from which can spring all manner of positives.  On these points, see;

Davidson, K, Daly, T, & Arber, S (2003).  'Older Men, Social Integration and Organisational Activities'.  Social Policy and Society.  Vol. 2, No. 2, 81–89.

Davidson, K (2013).  'Older Men in the Community, a United Kingdom Perspective'.  International Perspectives on Aging.  Vol. 6, 163-176.

Foley, A (2014).  'The Case for Some Men's Spaces'.  In: Golding, B, Mark, R, & Foley, A, eds.  Men Learning through Life.  NIACE.  Leicester. 

Golding, B, Kimberley, H, Foley, A, & Brown, M (2008).  'Houses and Sheds in Australia: An Exploration of the Genesis and Growth of Neighbourhood Houses and Men's Sheds in Community Settings'.  Australian Journal of Adult Learning.  Vol. 48, No. 2, 237-262.

Russell, C (2007).  'What do Older Men and Women Want?  Gender Differences in the 'Lived Experience' of Ageing'.  Current Sociology.  Vol. 55, No. 2, 173-192.

Thompson, E.H (1994).  Older Men’s Lives.  Sage Publications.  Thousand Oaks.

The point these studies ultimately try to get across is that for the individual, being a man has a fundamental impact on how they understand themselves, and how they respond to the world around them.  As retirement can be difficult for a man whose identity and social network is centred around his employment, so ill health can be problematic for men who may be reluctant to share their concerns with friends, family, or their doctor.  On this point, research has considered the difficulties that men can experience in comprehending, understanding, and seeking treatment for ill health;

Addis, M.E, & Mahalik, J.R (2003).  'Men, Masculinity, and the Contexts of Health Seeking'.  American Psychologist.  Vol. 58, No. 1, 5-14.

Courtenay, W.H (2000).  'Constructions of Masculinity and their Influence on Men's Well-being: A Theory of Gender and Health.  Social Science and Medicine.  Vol. 50, 1385-1401.

Courtenay, W.H (2003).  'Key Determinants of the Health and Well-being of Men and Boys’.  International Journal of Men’s Health.  Vol. 2, No. 1, 1-30.

Evans, J, Frank, B, Oliffe, J.L, & Gregory, D (2011).  'Health, Illness, Men and Masculinities (HINeil): A Theoretical Framework for Understanding Men and their Health'.  JMH.  Vol. 8, No. 1, 7-15.

On the health dilemmas faced by older men in particular, see;

Borwn, A, & MacDonald, J.J (2003).  ‘Not a Load of Garbage: Older Men’s Attitudes to Health and Wellbeing’.  Fourth National Men’s and Boys’ Health Conference, September 2001.  University of Western Sydney.

McVittie, C, & Willock, J (2006).  '"You Can't Fight Windmills": How Older Men Do Health, Ill Health, and Masculinities'.  Qualitative Health Research.  Vol. 16, No. 6, 788-801.

Smith, J.A, Braunack-Mayer, A, Wittert, G, & Warin, M (2007).  '"I've Been Independent for so Damn Long!":  Independence, Masculinity and Aging in a Help Seeking Context'.  Journal of Aging Studies.  Vol. 21, 325-335.

Springer, K.W, & Mouzon, D.M (2011).  '"Macho Men" and Preventive Health Care: Implications for Older Men in Different Social Classes'.  Journal of Health and Social Behavior.  Vol. 52, No. 2, 212-227.

Tannenbaum, C, & Frank, B (2011).  'Masculinity and Health in Late Life Men'.  American Journal of Men's Health.  Vol. 5, No. 3, 243-254.

The research consistently demonstrates that Men’s Shed provide a structured though non-hierarchal form of social engagement, centred around but not exhausted by the conduct of hands-on workshop-based activities, for men used to the social networks provided by paid employment.  Shedders have been demonstrated to gain a new sense of purpose and community membership through their involvement, and a means of both utilising pre-existing skills and learning new ones in an unthreatening environment frequented by like-minded others.  Through helping and being helped by others in this fashion, shedders also help themselves, with the research noting self-reported improvements in their own sense of health and wellbeing, as well as their relationship with their wife or partner.  Many men particularly valued the fact that, in the open and egalitarian environment created, they could open up to other men about any personal issues they may be experienced, without fear of being viewed as a “lesser male” (Foley, 2014); support and advice, as opposed to judgement, is the order of the day in Men’s Sheds.  These findings are detailed in the following studies and reports;

Ballinger, M, Talbot, T, & Verrinder, K (2009).  'More than a Place to do Woodwork: A Case Study of a Community-Based Men’s Shed'.  Journal of Men’s Health.  Vol. 6, No. 1, 20-27.

Cass, Y, Fildes, D, & Marshall, C (2008).  '3 in 1 Mature Men's Project Evaluation Results'.  New South Wales Government.  Illawarra

Cavanagh, J, McNeil, N, & Bartram, T (2013).  'The Australian Men's Shed Movement: Human Resource Management in a Voluntary Organisation'.  Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources.  Vol. 51, No. 3, 292-306.

Fildes, D, Cass, Y, Wallner, F &, Owen, A (2010).  'Shedding Light on Men: The Building Healthy Men Project'.  Journal of Men's Health.  Vol. 7, No. 3, 233-240.

Golding, B, & Harvey, J (2006).  'Final Report on a Survey of Men’s Sheds Participants in Victoria'.  Report to Adult, Community and Further Education Board.  Victoria.

Golding, B (2011).  ‘Older Men’s Wellbeing through Community Participation in Australia’.  International Journal of Men’s Health.  Vol. 10, No. 1, 26-44.

Graves K (2001).  Shedding the Light on ‘Men in Sheds'.    Final Report for Community Health Bendigo.  Bendigo.

Healthbox CIC (2012).  'Men in Sheds Programme Health Evaluation'.  Age UK.  Cheshire.

Milligan, C, Payne, S, Bingley, A, & Cockshott, Z (2012).  Evaluation of the Men in Sheds Pilot Programme.  Age UK.  London

Misan, G, Haren, M, & Ledo, V (2008).  Men's Sheds: A Strategy to Improve Men's Health.  Men's Sheds Australia Ltd.  Parramatta.

Morgan, N (2010).  ‘A Room of their Own: Men’s Sheds Build Communities of Support and Purpose’.  Cross Currents: The Journal of Addiction and Mental Health.  Vol. 13, No. 4, 12-13.

Ormsby, J, Stanley, M, &, Jaworski, K (2010).  'Older Men’s Participation in Community-based Men’s Sheds Programmes'.  Health & Social Care in the Community.  Vol. 18, No. 6, 607-613.

Reynolds, K (2011).  'Older male Adults’ Involvement in Men’s Sheds'.  Master of Arts thesis, University of Manitoba.  Manitoba.

Considering now the potential educational benefits that can arise in the informal workshop environment of a Men’s Shed, Golding and his colleagues have stressed the difficulties associated with men's learning following retirement or unemployment, including negativity stemming from formal educational experiences, scepticism regarding the benefits of learning, and perceptions of the gendered and age-specific nature of adult education schemes.  These findings do not reflect an unwillingness to learn per se, but rather an unwillingness to engage in specific kinds of learning that they find uncomfortable (often that which utilises a formal curriculum and defined teachers).  Men's Sheds provide opportunities to engage in informal, practically focused, mutually supportive learning through immersion in what is termed a 'community of practice', where learning is an emergent function of the environment rather than being the explicit purpose of the organisation.  On the various forms and general value of adult learning, see;

Jenkins, A (2011).  ‘Participation in Learning and Wellbeing among Older Adults’.  International Journal of Lifelong Education.  Vol. 30, No. 3, 403-420.

Marks, R, & Soulsby, J (2014).  'Men's Learning in the UK'.  In: Golding, B, Mark, R, & Foley, A, eds.  Men Learning through Life.  NIACE.  Leicester. 

McGivney, V (1999).  Informal Learning in the Community: A Trigger for Change.  NIACE.  Leicester.

McGivney, V (1999).  Missing Men: Men who are missing from education and Training.  NIACE.  Leicester.

McGivney, V (2006).  Adult Learning at a Glance.  NIACE.  Leicester. 

On the educational capacities of Men's Sheds in particular, see;

Brown, M, Golding, B, & Foley, A (2008).  ‘Out the Back: Men’s Sheds and Informal Learning’.  Fine Print.  Vol. 31, No. 2, 12-15.

Carragher, L (2013).  Men's Shed in Ireland: Learning through Community Contexts.  The Netwell Centre, School of Health and Science.  Dundalk Institute of Technology.

Carragher, L, Evoy, J, & Mark, R (2014).  'Men's Learning in Ireland'.  In: Golding, B, Mark, R, & Foley, A, eds.  Men Learning through Life.  NIACE.  Leicester. 

Golding, B, Brown, A, & Foley, A (2007).  Old Dogs New Shed Tricks: An Exploration of Innovative Workshop-based Practice for Older Men in Australia'.  Australian Vocational Education and Training Research Assocation (AVETRA) Conference. Melbourne.

Golding, B, Brown, M, Foley, A, Harvey, J, & Gleeson, L (2007).  Men’s Sheds in Australia: Learning through Community Contexts.  National Centre for Vocational Education Research.  Adelaide.

Golding, B (2011).  ‘Shedding Ideas about Older Men’s Learning’.  Lifelong Learning in Europe.  Vol. 2, 119-124.

Golding, B (2011).  'Social, Local, and Situated: Recent Findings about the Effectiveness of Older Men's Informal Learning in Community Contexts'.  Adult Education Quarterly.  Vol. 61, No. 2, 103-120.

Golding, B (2011).  ‘Thinking Inside the Box: What can we Learn from the Men’s Shed Movement?’.  Adults Learning.  Vol. 22, No. 8, 24-27.

Golding, B (2012).  ‘Men’s Sheds, Community Learning and Public Policy.  In: Bowl, M, Tobias, R, Leahy, J, Ferguson, G, & Gage, J, eds.  Gender, Masculinities and Lifelong Learning.  Routledge.  Abingdon.

Golding, B (2014).  'Men's Sheds: A New Movement for Change'.  In: Golding, B, Mark, R, & Foley, A, eds.  Men Learning through Life.  NIACE.  Leicester. 

Martin, K, Wicks, A, & Malpage, J (2008).  ‘Meaningful Occupation at the Berry Men’s Shed’.  Journal of Occupational Science.  Vol. 15, No. 3, 194-195.

Vallance, S, & Golding, B (2008).  ‘They’re Funny Bloody Cattle: Encouraging Rural men to learn’.  Australian Journal of Adult Learning.  Vol. 48, No. 2, 369-384.

The scholarship noted here is but a small (though carefully selected) sample of the thousands of books, articles, and research reports that have been written on men’s lives in general, and Men’s Sheds in particular.  However, the central point to remember is very simple; the most fruitful way to address the issues that men may experience during their lives is to recognise that they are men, and that they may have difficulty engaging with people, groups, and services that fail to understand this.  As the research into Men’s Sheds demonstrates though, give a man a space geared towards him, a space in which he feels comfortable, and great things can result, for men themselves, their families, and their communities.  

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