If UBC researcher John Oliffe had his way, more “men’s sheds” would be built in the Lower Mainland and across Canada.
The nursing professor, who co-heads UBC’s Men’s Health Research program with John Ogrodniczuk from UBC Psychiatry, has seen the tremendous value of these sheds in fostering social connections among men—particularly seniors and retirees—who would otherwise just stay home, possibly isolated or depressed.
These sheds aren’t your typical private garage or shed in the back. Instead, they’re community programs anchored by a physical workshop or clubhouse where men can engage in activities such as woodworking, gardening, bike repair and other hobbies in the company of other men.
In this Q&A, Oliffe talks about how men’s sheds are taking root in Canada and changing men’s lives, one shed at a time.
How did men’s sheds come about?
The original Australian model was started in 1978 with the goal of integrating older men into the community – men who were undergoing major life changes such as retirement, divorce or the loss of a spouse. The thinking was a shed or workshop is commonly part of a man’s identity, so a community shed just builds on that.
They’ve been very successful. Australian research shows that these sheds are effective in helping their members cope with issues such as unemployment, adjustment to retirement, loneliness, alcohol abuse and other health problems.
The movement has spread to New Zealand, Ireland, Wales, England, Portugal, Finland, Croatia, Uganda, and most recently, Canada. Some sheds are quite traditional–it’s all about tools and building things. But we’ve also seen other examples. For example, the Winnipeg-based shed is not a typical barn or shed. They do things like a lot of cooking and gardening, and they connect with each other while doing those sorts of things.
The shed really is a placeholder for bringing guys together so they can connect. They get the space, tools and support to master a skill or pick up a new one. But they’re not forced to sit in a room to talk about feelings. They’re doing things, and maybe they’ll talk and connect while doing so. We see it all the time. Guys are great at “doing” and will connect over activity.
When did men’s sheds start in Canada?
Doug Mackie started Men’s Sheds Manitoba in Winnipeg in 2011 – that was the first men’s shed in Canada and it’s got about 50 members. In B.C., the Okanagan Men’s Sheds Association started in 2013, and there are start-up sheds in Pemberton and in White Rock/South Surrey.
In fact, University of Manitoba researchers just published a study in Aging & Society which showed that participation in the Winnipeg shed had a deep impact on the men. They were less stressed, less depressed, and they felt more included in the community. They thought the shed made up for the lack of community programs for older men and retirees.
What is the role of Men’s Health Research at UBC in developing this?
We have received funding from Movember for five projects, including one that’s focused on men’s sheds. Through my colleagues, Corey Mackenzie and Kerstin Stieber Roger from the University of Manitoba, we are designing a toolbox to roll out the men’s shed model more extensively in Canada. It will be available online to help people develop a shed wherever they are, and also to help in overcoming the challenges of finding and developing a space as a men’s shed.
Are men the only ones who benefit?
I think part of what stops us in pursing male-oriented programs is that idea that if we’re doing work with men, we’re not doing anything with women. It’s a misconception. If you work with men, the benefits of them being healthier flow on to the community – to their partners, to women, to children.