THE 3,000 members who regularly attend the growing phenomenon of the Men’s Sheds organisation show a big improvement in health and wellbeing, according to a new survey.
The “Sheds” community is a voluntary group where ordinary men meet to talk, share experiences and work on common projects. There are now more than 300 “Sheds” across the country.
The research, which is to be published later this month by the Netwell Centre at the Dundalk Institute of Technology, shows that men who visited sheds regularly had better personal and domestic lives.
The author of the research, Dr Lucia Carragher of the Dundalk Institute of Technology’s School of Health and Science, found that men who attended the sheds felt happier at home, 97pc felt better about themselves, 88pc said they had access to health information and 74pc had improved home lives as a result of participating in the movement.
The results of the study - carried out between May 2012 and January of this year and involved 445 questionnaires distributed to 52 sheds - also “highlight the fundamental human need to belong, indicating that for 95per cent of participants, the shed is a place of belonging”.
The findings also highlight that community based men’s sheds serve to foster social cohesion in a number of important ways - 98pc of men reported that they made new friends.
One man said: “It’s a totally different sort of meeting of men than you would normally have. You would normally meet your men friends in a pub situation so there would be alcohol more than likely. This is all sober. Everybody is as they are, it’s totally real.”
A men’s shed, as described by the Irish Men’s Sheds Association, is any community-based, non-commercial organisation which is open to all men where the primary activity is the provision of a safe, friendly and inclusive environment where the men are able to gather and/or work on meaningful projects at their own pace, in their own time and in the company of other men. The primary objective is to advance the health and well-being of the participating men’.
The development of men’s sheds is a recent grassroots phenomenon which started in Australia in the mid-1990s and spread rapidly and very recently to other countries, including New Zealand, Canada, and the UK, where it continues to grow, but nowhere as rapidly as in Ireland.
Dr Carragher says that as a concept there is nothing remarkable about men meeting informally. “In Ireland, men have long gathered together in clubs and pubs as well as after church on a Sunday and at football matches to talk and to share ideas and discuss life in general. But combining this social chat with ‘men’s work’ ― manual work that involves fixing, building and repairing ― is a new idea and the strength with which the concept has developed in Ireland is quite remarkable.”
The first men’s shed opened in Tipperary in 2009 and has now grown to more than 3,000 members. Dr Carragher says it is difficult to say how much of this growth has been spurred on by the recession, but accepts that it undoubtedly is a factor, particularly given the collapse in the housing sector which left thousands of manual workers unemployed.
The survey, the first of its kind in Ireland with participants drawn from across the island, show that the age of the men attracted to the sheds varied, with 29pc aged 49 or younger, but membership largely comprised of older men: 70pc were over 50 years of age, and just over half were already in receipt of some type of pension.
With 30pc having acquired education to diploma level or above, the men generally come from different socio-economic backgrounds.
There is evidence also of recent, significant and difficult changes experienced by older men with regard to health, relationships and employment. Within the past five years, 33pc of respondents had experienced retirement, over a quarter (26pc) had experienced a major health crisis, 14pc experienced a new impairment or disability, 41pc had experienced unemployment and a further 13per cent experienced difficulties with their business or job. Nearly one quarter (23pc) of respondents indicated that they had experienced depression in the past five years.
One of the most significant findings of the study is the men’s view on learning, and their eagerness to further their skills.
A staggering 95pc indicated that belonging to a men’s shed helped them learn, and over three quarters were eager to access further learning opportunities in the shed, with 67pc saying that opportunities for learning elsewhere in the community were limited.
In terms of education, the majority (41pc) have a primary or secondary level education, but 20pc have a technical or vocational qualification. This is higher than the general population, reflecting the higher concentration of tradesmen in sheds; 45pc identified themselves as a current or former qualified tradesman. Just 13pc attained a primary degree or above.
Tellingly, while just one third reported having a positive educational experience in school, over three-quarters of those participating in sheds are keen to access more learning opportunities. For most, the preferred way to learn, centre around practical situations and working with their hands ― mending, fixing, building, repairing ― in a group with largely, but not exclusively, other men. Other learning preferences expressed by men were wide ranging, and reflected a hunger for learning which was common in all sheds.
While some of the preferences appear to suggest an inclination towards formal education, when asked how and where they would prefer to avail of these learning opportunities, the majority said they would prefer to learn from another member of the men’s shed with the appropriate skills.
Dr Carragher says there is a strong case for some government support for the Irish Men’s Sheds Association without breaking the essential grassroots connections to and between sheds.
“Having a national representative body to ensure that sheds are listened to is vital and the IMSA must continue to speak on sheds’ behalf in public debates and on policy that will affect men’s lives. This is important for all sheds, regardless of their size, but it is particularly important for the countless small sheds spread across country, many of whom are underfunded and whose future is uncertain.”
She adds that the findings from this research point to a wide range of support needs of sheds and to a wide range of benefits to the men who participate in sheds, their families and the wider community. “As our findings highlight, participants of men’s sheds engaged in learning, acquiring many new skills through their involvement. It is of the upmost importance that this is not just seen in relation to employment prospects, but for its contribution to the development of mental capital and wellbeing to help individuals deal with difficult life transitions and for society and communities to address the challenges of inevitable changes in the years ahead.
“Given the changing demographics towards a growing older population, the importance of finding effective ways to promote well-being in older age has never been greater.”
John Evoy, CEO of The Irish Men’s Shed Association, said he was delighted the report was completed, adding that “now we have the empirical data that proves what we already know in terms of how important the sheds are becoming to the men of Ireland”.
• Roisin O’Hara is a freelance video journalist who runs the Ireland Reporter website at http://irelandreporter.com/ where you can find alternative people-centred news videos