Crisis management: UK Men’s Sheds Association

Crisis management: UK Men’s Sheds Association
Sunnyside Men's Shed, in happier times

Charlie Bethel is Chief Officer of UK Men’s Shed’s Association, a charity that exists to create happy and healthy men through facilitating and supporting the development of independent Men’s Sheds across the UK.

Could you tell us a bit about Men’s Sheds and what they do?

Sheds are basically safe spaces for men to come together to make things for themselves or their community.  It is often referred to as a therapy that dare not speak its name as the Shed provides a focus and purpose where it may have been lost.  By working shoulder to shoulder men will talk about what is bothering them.

An example of why a Shed works – If you put 12 men in a room and say, talk about your feelings – six will leave the room and six will try to find the corner. If you put a lawnmower in the room and say – fix it, before long the twelve men will know each other’s worries, how many children and grandchildren they have, what ails them and how they take their tea. You might even get a fixed lawnmower…

Men’s sheds are usually described as community spaces where men can meet up and engage in activities ‘shoulder-to-shoulder.’ How has that changed with coronavirus and lockdown?

Clearly the physical activity in a Shed had to stop on the 23rd March like so many organisations, however this didn’t stop the interaction between Shedders (the name people in Sheds call each other). The Sheds very quickly decamped online, with weekly video calls.  Where people have not been online there has also been a concerted effort for people to stay in contact by telephone. Amazingly during this time at least four new Sheds have been set up ‘virtually’ online.  These groups of men are meeting regularly planning where and how they will set up a physical Shed post lockdown.

What have been the impacts on the ‘Shedders’ of losing that physical space and regular calendar event?

It would be fair to say that Shedders want to get back.  The vast majority are being very considered in their approaches and have been seeking out different approaches to support people or to undertake projects at home on their own.  Some Sheds have set projects such as each Shedder making different parts of a clock to assemble on their return to ‘normal Shed life’.

There is also an anxiety amongst many of the older members of Sheds and a nervousness about what returning might look like. We are working with Sheds to see how they may have a hybrid of online activity along with a physical return.  Confidence in the system is what we need to achieve, confidence that the Shed will be as safe as it can be when people return..  

The ethos in Sheds is people looking after each other and this has never been more important. 

Are Sheds getting the support they need from politicians, public bodies and funders through this? How could things improve?  

Our influence is from a local level and growing, but sadly this does not meet our needs in terms of financial support.  We are seeing a growth of 100 Sheds opening every year and with growth comes additional demand from Sheds and people requiring support with new Sheds.  We operate with a lean team of 3 1/2 staff and I am the 1/2.  It is important that we stay lean, but there is so much more we could achieve with the right resources.  Our insight from people attending Sheds tells us that Sheds reduce loneliness by 96%, anxiety by 75% and depression by 89% where people identified as being lonely, anxious or depressed before joining a Shed. 

We are now looking at campaigning around positive wellbeing in DIY and hope that this will enhance the exposure of Men’s health, reach more people and increase our exposure.

What would you like to see at a public and policy level to address that?

There is a lack of recognition of the needs of men in society means we are always facing an uphill challenge.  Very few services exist for men and there is certainly a prejudice in some quarters when we talk about Men’s Sheds; it has lost us potential partners.  There is an urgency to both recognise and address the challenges in society. 

At UKMSA you know better than anyone about the impacts on physical and mental health of prolonged periods of isolation and loneliness. How worried are you about the longterm effects of this crisis on the general population, and men in particular?

We are worried about the impact on Shedders from both an economical perspective and the health of Shedders.  Shedders have demonstrated tremendous resilience so far and are being incredibly supportive to each other.  Looking wider, Sheds being closed means they are less accessible to people who need them.  It is clear to us that Men’s Sheds meet a need that is not being met in society; particularly if they do not or cannot play sport.

What one lesson have you learned for your work during the crisis?

Covid-19 has resulted in tremendous human loss and we will certainly be experiencing the economic impact for many years to come.  Without doubt we have seen fantastic innovation and spirit from Sheds.  Sheds really have met the challenge of ‘poverty being the mother of innovation’.  They’ve had a poverty of time, a poverty of connection and they’ve found a way!

For more information about Men’s Sheds, including how to find a project close to you or about creating your own, please visit the UKMSA website.

Ally Fogg

Ally Fogg

Ally Fogg is founding editor of Gendemic. As a writer and journalist he has been covering issues of social justice and gender issues for over 25 years and is a co-founder and Chair of the Men & Boys Coalition, the UK's umbrella charity for the men's sector.