Mike, 74, on the importance of Men’s Sheds in giving men purpose, identity and friendship

Having a space where one can invent, create and repair is something that is sought after by many of us; and for men, it’s not uncommon for this space to resemble a garage, or a shed at the bottom of the garden. But what if you don’t have access to a space like this, or to the tools and equipment you need to work on your dream project? Or what if you do, but could benefit from someone to bounce ideas off of over a cup of tea or coffee?

When Mike Jenn retired in 2011, he decided to use his 40 years of experience in the voluntary sector (where he worked in project management, and spent 15 years as a CEO), to start a Men’s Shed movement across the UK. Mike, from Camden Town, London, was inspired by the popularity of the Australian Men’s Shed movement, after hearing about it from his son.

Following some research, he found that there were just four Sheds run by Age UK and a handful of other independents across the nation. With no space for a shed in his own garden, and wanting to continue playing a positive role in society post-retirement, Mike decided that he would start his own Shed locally.

Speaking about his decision to set up a Men’s Shed in his hometown, Mike, now 74, said, “I need to be contributing to society, so I had to find a role. Given my work experience I could see I could start a local Shed, but also start a national movement and this really energised me. I worked passionately – I was on a mission – and it took everything I could give.”

“A Men’s Shed is more than a building, it’s a community…”

Three days after his formal retirement date, Mike founded the Camden Town Shed; a community workspace that attracts men and women, and reduces their social isolation. For Mike, this was the start of a grassroots movement which would provide men across the UK with community hubs, where they could connect with one another, do some craftwork, and learn some new skills. Activities in these hubs can include anything from woodworking, metalworking and electronics, through to repairing, restoring, model building – or even car building.

Explaining the idea behind the movement, Mike says, “A Men’s Shed is more than a building, it’s a community, and what Shedders say they miss most about being employed is the workmates and the banter. In a Shed you can choose to do your own making or repairing project whilst being in the company of other people.

“The project you choose might use existing or new skills, be creative, challenging or you may find yourself passing on skills to others. Alternatively you might work as part of a team making something for the wider community. If you get stuck, usually someone else can suggest a way forward. It is like being gainfully employed again in a working community but doing what you want to do when and how you like whilst enjoying the banter and camaraderie.”

The Men’s Shed movement is a continuing success…

A year after setting up his Camden Town Shed, Mike created a website to spread awareness about the Men’s Shed initiative. He used his own Shed as a case study to promote the benefits, and show others that setting up a Shed doesn’t have to break the bank. With a growing interest in Men’s Sheds across the UK; in 2013, Mike founded the UK Men’s Shed Association (UKMSA), to make sure that anyone who was interested in setting up a Shed had access to the help and support they needed to do so.

Today, there are over 600 Men’s Shed’s across the UK, and an additional 150 or more are in planning at any one time. About a third of Sheds now have women in attendance, and there has also been the development of some ‘She Sheds’. Though Mike resigned as Chair of the UKMSA in 2015 at the first national Shedfest, he remains Honorary President of the association, and continues to attend the Camden Town Men’s Shed twice a week, as he has done for the last 10 years.

“Suddenly having a lot of spare time can also be a challenge - particularly if you feel you still have a lot of energy, skills and experience which are now not going to be called upon”

Reflecting on his retirement, and on the concept of retirement generally, Mike explains how the way that we interpret our lives during this stage, and the narrative that we adopt, can contribute to the state of our mental health.

He says, “When people retire, what will have changed is that they no longer have workmates, a work role, a work routine, and as much income. This will involve some loss of identity and purpose.

“If you have worked continuously, then suddenly having a lot of spare time can also be a challenge – particularly if you feel you still have a lot of energy, skills and experience which are now not going to be called upon. You may also be less physically active. Daytime options for some are to come down to the pub or the betting shop in search of company, but for others it can be golf, or other sports and pastimes. Solo gaming and daytime TV can be deadly, but keeping as fit as you can is a great help.”

“Having a community, some positive relationships, something to contribute, a balance of autonomy and interdependence, and some options, all contribute to good mental health”

While retirement might have a significant impact on mental health, in recent years, there has also been great emphasis on the importance of men’s mental health across all ages. Alarmingly, statistics from charity men’s charity, Movember, highlight that globally, one man dies from suicide every minute of every day, and that three out of four suicides in the UK are also by men. Giving his own interpretation of why this might be, and how the Men’s Shed movement might be able to help with this, Mike says:

“I think that globally the dominant economic system can lead to despair. Its aim is not focussed on the wellbeing of the human and biological community. It values economic growth over human growth, exploitation over enhancement of resources, competition over cooperation.

“There are inevitably losers because the scales are weighed against them. And it is not just those who are trapped, but also some of those who run the system who can’t live with the imbalance. Men tend to feel that they should be able to fix the problems they face and can feel utter failure if they can’t.

“Having a community, some positive relationships, something to contribute, a balance of autonomy and interdependence, and some options, all contribute to good mental health and these can be the experience of attending a Shed.”

Echoing Mike’s words, the UKMSA website also highlights that men – particularly older men – tend to have smaller networks of friends than women of a similar age, and might be less likely to open up about worries or health concerns. Recent research also shows that loneliness and isolation can be just as detrimental to our health, as obesity and excessive smoking. The UKMSA say the aim of the Men’s Shed project is to change all of this; and to offer men a safe space to find purpose, friendships and belonging.

Ninety per cent of Shedders were less lonely, had more friends and were less depressed (UKMSA)

So far the Men’s Shed movement has been met with a positive response nationwide; with research from UKMSA finding that of 500 Men’s Shed members who attended a Shed regularly, 90% were less lonely, had more friends and were less depressed – while 75% had less anxiety, and 88% felt more connected to the community.

Breathing some life into these statistics, Mike continues: “Of course behind the figures are the people’s own stories and personal views such as these:

John, 68: ‘It gives me a zest for life. I enjoy every minute of it.’

Les 88: ‘It’s the best part of my week. I’ve got purpose now.’

Ken 74: ‘By coming to the Shed I have got stimulation and company.”

Though mental health research and services have long been underfunded; with mental health often facing persistent social taboo as a result, Mike believes that the UK is now going through a shift in public consciousness, which “recognises mental health as important and in need of great understanding.”

He explains, “This shift should lead to more people being aware of their own and other’s condition and of actions that can help. We should learn and look after each other. Of course specialist help is needed too but prevention is better than cure. As Pope Francis recently wrote ‘Now is the time for a new humanism that can harness this eruption of fraternity, to put an end to the globalisation of indifference. We need to feel again that we need each other.’

“It’s a challenge to be more open about how you are coping, but the more that people can speak about what makes for good or poor mental health, the easier it will become. Television, celebrities, books, magazines, YouTube etc, would all be useful channels.”

Mike on the pandemic: “One Shed man-handled a car they were restoring to a member’s home, so that he could continue to restore it with his son-in-law”

The impact of the pandemic on mental health is also something that has been discussed recently by mental health charities, as well as being highlighted in the mainstream news. Aware of how people might be struggling during this time, Mike says there have been great efforts made to make sure that members can stay connected during lockdown; with the vast majority of Sheds engaging in regular telephone or Zoom calls. People have also continued to sign up to Men’s Sheds across the UK during this virtual phase, and one Shed in Teddington now has double the amount of members compared to normal sessions.

Mike continues, “There has also been a radio show, Shed Happens, that has been delivered thanks to the Frome Shed and Frome FM. This has been supported by UKMSA and the National Lottery Community Fund to keep people in touch.

“There have been some incredible stories, including a Shed in Dalbeattie who man-handled a car they were restoring to a member’s home so that he could continue to restore it with his son-in-law (who was in his bubble). The member is struggling with Parkinsons and working on the Skeotch car ‘brings him to life.’ Not everyone has this kind of space and many members have been working at home doing marquetry, whittling and other small projects and meeting up one to one for walks etc. Some other Sheds, not many, have offered support to the more vulnerable members of the community on a socially distanced basis.”

“The Men’s Shed movement is only just touching the tip of the iceberg”

At present, Mike cannot imagine a day when he is no longer involved with the incredible work that Men’s Shed do, and says that UKMSA are “only just touching the tip of the iceberg”, with regards to what’s in the pipeline. The plan is to eventually have a Shed that every man and woman in the UK can turn to should they want or need one. UKMSA are currently working on building the voluntary infrastructure needed to achieve this, and Mike says that with support and partnerships he believes they can.

Mike would encourage any man (or woman) who is looking for a way to connect with others locally, get creative and learn some new skills, to get in touch with their local Men’s Shed. He would also urge anyone who is interested in setting one up to get in touch with UKMSA who can provide support and advice on how to do this.

Emphasizing the kind and compassionate nature shown by the Shed community; and why anyone who might be in need of friends, support or a place to explore their creativity should consider getting in touch with their local Shed; Mike says:

”A man went into hospital with a potentially terminal illness. The staff soon realised he wasn’t getting visitors and when asked, he said he had neither family, nor friends. A nurse contacted the local Shed and told them the situation. ‘He has now’, was the reply.”

If you’re interested in finding your nearest Men’s Shed, or setting one up in your local area, then you can find out more on the UKMSA website here.

Are you a member of a Men’s Shed? Or perhaps you’re considering setting one up in your local community? Join the conversation on the community forum, or leave a comment below.

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