In the company of men – good health for ‘sheddies’

Dr David Anstiss, PhD in psychology, studied the culture of the Men's Shed movement

According to urban myth, blokes just want to retreat into solitary ‘man caves’ or backyard sheds. But new research on the growing popularity of community sheds reveals older men relish the chance to collaborate over projects and socialise – and by doing so their health is benefitting.

“Men might discuss the results of cancer diagnoses and other health issues, the rugby, or arrival of a new grandchild whilst undertaking practical projects, from woodwork to computer programming,” says Dr David Anstiss, who graduated last week with a PhD in psychology from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University’s Auckland campus.

Making, fixing and building things in a shared shed are a backdrop for making new friendships that can help men navigate a significant life change. This companionship fostered through shared activity can bolster mental and physical health, helping protect men from depression, loss of identity, loneliness, and even suicide, Dr Anstiss says.

‘Sheddies’ also gain satisfaction from contributing to their communities through projects they get involved in. Some wish their working lives had featured more camaraderie than cutthroat competition.

Dr Anstiss spent several months in the company of ‘sheddies’– retirees of the Men’s Shed North Shore, one of over 30 such community spaces in New Zealand where men share their passion for fixing and making things, as well as passing on their skills and knowledge. They find companionship in what amounts to a “blurring of labour and leisure.”

His research highlights the value of the Men’s Shed movement in helping participants to stay physically and mentally well through supporting each other at a time when they often struggle to find purpose and meaning after adult lives centred on being the family breadwinner.

Participants from the Men's Shed North Shore, where Dr Anstiss spent time as part of his research

A new view of men's friendships

He hopes his research will demonstrate how men can relate to each other in positive ways that don’t fit the traditional narrative – of men as closed off, emotionally stunted beings. There is a dearth of research on “men’s need and ability to create spaces for care and positive social relationships,” he says.

“Retirement can bring about significant disruption for men who spend a large amount of their lives in paid employment,” he says in his thesis. “When leaving paid employment, men also leave places where they have developed a sense of self, secured resources, found meaning, participated in social networks, and engaged in practices of health and gender.”

The Men’s Shed concept underscores a key aspect of being male – the tendency to form bonds through productive activity – “shoulder to shoulder, rather than face to face”, as women tend to do.

In his literature research, he traces this behaviour back to our colonial roots, when mate-ship was forged around rugged practical aspects of survival and hard physical labour on the land.

Men prefer to communicate while sharing practical tasks

First-hand research nails it

Dr Anstiss experienced ‘sheddie’ culture first hand as part of his research at the Men’s Shed North Shore, which opened four years ago. He learned how to hold a hammer properly and to use a bandsaw safely, writing about his experiences, conversations and observations in a journal at the end of each day. He also interviewed 12 men individually or in a group about their experiences and reflections.

As one Sheddie told him: “We were here sorting out nuts and bolts and washers and screws with people, which was a boring, boring job, but it was made interesting by the conversation and the relationships that developed through that.”

In Australia more than 500 community men’s sheds have arisen over the last decade with the help of government funding and policy initiatives – something Dr Anstiss would like to see happen in New Zealand, where the development of Men’s Sheds is a grass roots response to local community needs.

Men’s Shed philosophy:

Sheds do not treat men like clients, customers, or patients. They do not treat age as a deficit; there is no ageism. Sheds are a place where older men can rekindle their passion for life, where they can take advantage of opportunities, where they can make friends and share their experiences and where, ultimately, they can be happy (Men's Shed North Shore, 2013)

Read Dr Anstiss’s thesis here.

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