Acts of Impact

How 1,200+ Men’s Sheds Across Australia Provide Social Support, Camaraderie, and Improved Health for Men

October 27, 2022 Nicholas Hill Season 1 Episode 29
How 1,200+ Men’s Sheds Across Australia Provide Social Support, Camaraderie, and Improved Health for Men
Acts of Impact
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Acts of Impact
How 1,200+ Men’s Sheds Across Australia Provide Social Support, Camaraderie, and Improved Health for Men
Oct 27, 2022 Season 1 Episode 29
Nicholas Hill

Today we interview David Helmers. David is Executive Officer for the Australian Men’s Shed Association, a non-profit organization that supports the men’s shed movement across Australia. We’ll talk about the challenges men face when it comes to finding social support and camaraderie, how these sheds support men’s mental and physical well-being , and how David and the Australian Men’s Shed Association are helping out. 

To support the Australian Men's Shed Association and discover more ways to help, visit:

To find sheds in the U.S., visit:

To learn more about the show, view transcripts, and more visit:

Special thanks to David and the AMSA team. Music by Alex Grohls.

Show Notes Transcript

Today we interview David Helmers. David is Executive Officer for the Australian Men’s Shed Association, a non-profit organization that supports the men’s shed movement across Australia. We’ll talk about the challenges men face when it comes to finding social support and camaraderie, how these sheds support men’s mental and physical well-being , and how David and the Australian Men’s Shed Association are helping out. 

To support the Australian Men's Shed Association and discover more ways to help, visit:

To find sheds in the U.S., visit:

To learn more about the show, view transcripts, and more visit:

Special thanks to David and the AMSA team. Music by Alex Grohls.

Nicholas Hill  0:00  
You're listening to acts of impact the show where we interview those who are making a positive difference in the world around us. I'm your host, Nicholas Hill. And today's guest is David Helmers. David is executive officer for the Australian Men's Shed Association, a nonprofit organization that supports the Men's Shed movement across Australia. We'll talk about the challenges men face when it comes to finding social support and camaraderie, how these sheds support men's mental and physical well being, and how David and the Australian Men's Shed Association are helping out. Let's get started.

David, welcome to the show. 

David Helmers
Hi, Nick, great to be with you. 

Nicholas Hill
Oh, it's certainly great to have you. And David, let's just kick it off by letting people know what exactly is a men's shed? What what does that term mean?

David Helmers  1:05  
You probably asked the most difficult question you go to ask all day there, Nick. How I've been asked that question for 15 years now and actually sum it up in a simple ways. Not the easiest thing to do, essentially, men sheds are a comfortable space for men to come and work together on meaningful projects. That's the standard one, one line response, I suppose. But there are a lot more than that there are primary aims prevention of social isolation, mainly in older men who are no longer in full time employment, and prevention of social isolation. Social isolation is a key contributor to poor health. So what we're doing is replacing that space, that that social environment that men had in their workplace, reducing the risk of social isolation, it's all about health, but we call it health by stealth, 

Nicholas Hill  2:00  
health by stealth. I like that. And what is kind of the history of this because something that I know that you have been with the Men's Shed movement, since kind of early stages. Can you tell us like how did this get started? Did it start with the Australian Men's Shed Association? Or was it something smaller than that?

David Helmers  2:21  
Yeah, it was. And looking back at it, one of the things that I love about the whole men's shed movement is that there wasn't one person who started or created. What we know today is the modern Men's Shed, it evolved at a time it's true grassroots, the the earliest sheds, we can trace back to the mid 80s, to late 80s. And there was only a few when I got involved in 2006, there's probably only about 30, Men's Sheds in existence. And yeah, we there was a few popping up around the place and a few people like myself who were employed to coordinate one Men's Shed project. And we all started communicating and sharing the information. And that laid the foundations, I suppose for the Australian Men's Shed Association, who was born on the principle of sharing that information. So yeah, when it wasn't all about health, the first shed I was involved with was primarily focused on youth mentoring. The health side of it came a bit later. And again, as part of the magic story of sheds, we didn't it morphed itself along the way. And as you know, I look back now and it's very privileged to be a part of that more thing along the way, but we let the sheds take the direction. And yeah, we refined the process and essentially, say with the Association, that period, up until 2010, when we were first funded by the government, we McDonald eyes it, we franchised it in a way, we made a simple pattern that could be duplicated, to save hundreds of 1000s of dollars in human resource costs in reinventing the wheel all the time. Yeah. And that's essentially how it started.

Nicholas Hill  4:03  
So you've got these sheds that are a grassroots movement. And you mentioned that really, the what a Men's Shed is, is a place where men can be comfortable. And I want to dive into that a little bit. What are some of the challenges that you saw as this movement started to evolve that men were facing? What What were they uncomfortable with that the shed provided them that they weren't really getting elsewhere?

David Helmers  4:34  
Yeah, and I think, in this way we solve part of the problem was creating that comfortable space. There's a little hypothetical I like to use as an example of what getting men to talk together about amongst themselves, especially here in Australia. You know, farmers and blokes big burly guys that have worked in industry all their all their life, getting to open up and talk about some of their problems. was a real challenge and the way of doing it. Yeah, it was, you know, very clinical way you would get a facilitator and half a dozen blokes in the room. And they would all sit around and they say, well, let's all put our heart and our sleeves and tell each other our problems and share it. And that went down like a lead balloon, you know, it didn't work, the little hypothetical I throw out there. To explain how the shed works, is you take that same group of men put an old lawnmower on the table instead of a facilitator, and a bunch of tools and get them to fix it, auto repair it, at the end of a few hours, they still wouldn't have repaired it, the lawnmower will still be busted. But they would have spoke, they speak to each other, they're in a comfortable place, they're working shoulder to shoulder, and they start to talk about their problems. And that's essentially how the main shed works,

Nicholas Hill  5:56  
some of my most memorable moments talking to my dad growing up, when I think back, we were building a deck, we were putting up electrical wire, we were helping to fix the car. And I think about Yeah, we were always working on something. And and it almost seemed like that faded into the background. And really, it was just just hanging out

David Helmers  6:18  
that that's it. That's it. And that's very much a male trait in a lot of Western societies. And, yeah, I have a near when my friends come around, as you know, I'm talking to you today, Nick, you know, for the listeners from for the benefit of them direct live from my shed. And this is where when friends come around with that we hang out and talk. We spend more time in the shed than what we ever do in the house.

Nicholas Hill  6:42  
Are there any guidelines? So you mentioned that, you know, at the beginning of this, you set up kind of a simple patent that allows men to build these sheds and collaborate there? Are there any guidelines as to what people are building? Or the types of projects that they work on? What would I see if I looked into one of these?

David Helmers  7:03  
as long as it's legal, have essentially, we leave that up to their, their wants and their needs predominantly mentioned, it's right around the world that would work based men like something like working with timber, then you have you know, different middle work type applications and things like that they get, they get stock standards. But I've seen literally everything in sheds, you know, from building wooden toys to building real life steam trains, and restoring boats and airplanes. A year I remember saying In I was in a conference in Wales many years ago, and I said that I've seen everything built in the shed and just off the cuff for some reason I said, you know, goes to something else listening to the radio that day I said, Well, the only thing I've never seen a guy in a shed do is put something into space. And that got out and a couple of weeks later, I got contacted by a bloke in a Men's Shed in Scotland, who was actually one of the leading amateur rocketry is trying to put something Yeah, the first image project into orbit. So it's literally and he's doing a lot of the work in the shed. So I've seen everything. What

Nicholas Hill  8:18  
was he doing that before you issued that statement? Or after? 

David Helmers  8:22  
Yes, he was he was.

Nicholas Hill  8:24  
So he reached out and said, How dare you? I've been working on this over here.

David Helmers  8:28  
Exactly. Look, I even came in came across a guy in one shed who was building a miniature submarine that he could go in? Oh, got it done. Yeah. Got it certified. And, yeah. So think anything can be done.

Nicholas Hill  8:42  
Yeah. Well, you know, you said something earlier that I wanted to touch on, you said that. In 2010. Something changed. And you mentioned that that was when there was funding that became available to support the sheds. What what happened there? What was that? Was there a bill that was passed?

David Helmers  9:01  
There was a bit of a build up to that. As I said before, a lot of those early sheds. We knew something was going on in a social type nature. A lot of the sheds not the first one I was involved in the window shed project was in a very disadvantaged area. And it was all about youth mentoring. But what I started to observe, I remember giving a talk at a conference for counselors of all things. And after my talk, a lady came up to me and she said, You've got one of my clients in the shed and named the gentleman and like Yeah, I know so great guy. He said you wouldn't believe the difference the shed made. We had him under high watch. Yeah, we're certain he was going to take his own life. And after two weeks in the shed a lot of their alarm bells had gone down all he needed. This guy had been a coal miner. He all his life. You very close knit environment working underground in the mines, in a very strong culture, and at the age of 50, was forced redundancy with the mine closure. And he really didn't know what to do with himself. Little trigger points like that started to happen. Then in 2008, the Australian government became the second government in the world to create a male health policy. And we were invited to that process. So one of our patrons and good friend of mine named Professor John McDonald, came up and saw me in that period and convinced me that we didn't need convincing, I suppose he put the words to me that Men's Sheds are all about men's health, as he said, the social determinants of health. And one of the things is we have this need to be long socially, when we're, you know, Home Alone, that's the that's a trigger for substance abuse, depression, and all the health related issues that go with it. And there was a lot of men out there like that. So the shed was providing this space for them. And when the 2000 and when that male health policy was released by the government, in 2010, it came with funding attached to for men's for the Men's Shed movement and grow the Australian Men's Shed association for those four years prior it was people like myself was voluntarily done a lot of the work, I was employed as a Men's Shed coordinator for one project, you know, that was a PART part of the time and then we that morphed into creating the Australian men's shed association. So once that funding was allocated, we were literally on our own as an independent legal entity operating as we do today.

Nicholas Hill  11:44  
So you have these, you have this policy that has created a little bit more structure around how we can fund and how we can support this knowing that it has huge benefits for the men who participate. And when I think about the Australian Men's Shed Association, and some of the programs and projects that you have, one that comes to mind is a project on your website called Spanner spanner in the works are in the works. Yes. Could you tell me a little bit about that? Is that something that came a little later?

David Helmers  12:20  
No, that came with the health funding, one of the deliverables for us was to deliver health programs and male health screenings as such, which there wasn't a great deal of, but to get health information out into the sheds, you know, after all, we were funded by the Department of Health, and this was a health policy. One of the things I learned and I'm not, I think this was a unique thing that I brought to the table is that I wasn't from a health background, or I wasn't from a social welfare background, the truth be known, Nick, I was, you know, for the majority of my working life prior to that I'd been a baker in a family business for 17 years. So I came into the room with fresh eyes, I suppose, were a lot of the academics there, especially like John MacDonald would say, you know, to me, they're good points. But I can't say that I'm a professor, I need to back that up with hard evidence and research your, your, the baker, from Maitland you'd say, you can say whatever you want. So I could throw these things out. And I said, half the problem within the men's health that we identified was the literacy was wrong, we're not putting it into male friendly terminology or male appropriate it back from men in the sheds, they hated going to the doctor, because right there was very female orientated, the medical system in East who would agree, you go to any doctor's surgery and on the coffee tables, or, you know, a bunch of women's magazines that are 10 years out of date. And that's, you know, that's even a lot of the literature, you know, promotional material, materials, you know, female base. So I said, we've got to start looking at doing it in male specific terms. And then the basic idea was, if we can't get the men to go into the doctor for a checkup, let's try and get the health professional to the men, and use the sheds to do that. And that concept kind of grew. And we created the spanner in the works program. And that's, we're in partnership with an organization in Australia called healthy male. And I'll call them our scientific partner, they get they do all that gather all the research and the information. We just changed the language in the presentation, to put it into male friendly terminology. And when you look at our logos spanner in the works, machine, man is the main reference point. This is a image that's created for male body that's all made out of car parts, motor vehicle parts, and we relate those parts two parts of the human body. So that's putting it into something that the average male out there can understand in a way. Yeah, we're putting it into friendly terms.

Nicholas Hill  14:59  
So instead of saying, Oh, I'm gonna go get a physical examination, I might say, I'm gonna go get a tune up, or I'm gonna go get a performance check.

David Helmers  15:07  
Exactly, exactly, yep. And we do. That's why one of the slogans we're using it was, When was your last service, you get your cert car service once a year. So you should get your body service once a year, we run the programs that large events where a lot of men gather, like you will your version in the US will be the county fairs and state fairs, things like that, where there's a lot of farmers present and agricultural, the type shows and industry type specific events as well, somewhere where we know the Minaya and a lot of industries here in Australia have taken our program and deliver it to their male workforce. Yeah, it was part of the the contribution to their employees. So your health program, there was a situation in Australia where they would say men don't go to the doctor. Now statistically, that was not true. Right? It was something it was pretty much 50-50. When you looked at the data, the problem was being that men don't go to the doctor for preventative health. Generally, the symptoms are chronic by the time, you know, the average bloke gets around to go into the doctor. And there's lots of reasonings for that, when you want to really break it down a lot of time is a problem. For a lot, a lot of people who are working men, here in Australia, a lot of Australia is rural and remote areas, and it's quite a distance to go to the doctor as well. We have a bit of a lack of general practitioners in those areas as well. And there's the old male attitude of women and children first look after the wife and kids. But you know, when it comes to my own health now might not be so proactive about it. And were notorious globally, I think as being a bit of a risk taker, we expose ourselves to a lot more physical risk.

Nicholas Hill  17:05  
Yeah, you have the the image of the little boy on the monkey bars climbing too high or

David Helmers  17:12  
going down the steepest Hill on the street on his push bike and things like that.

Nicholas Hill  17:18  
Well, let's talk a little bit about the success that you've seen. Because you know, you mentioned when this started, you had a handful, a couple of dozen a sheds. But where are you now? Because my understanding is that this is not even just in Australia anymore.

David Helmers  17:34  
No way. Well, today in Australia, we've lost count is about 1200 90 Min sheds in existence. So pretty much every you know, town, rural town or regional center in Australia has got a main shed or two or three in some cases, when you do the break down. rural and regional Australia is where the where 80% of the sheds are only about 20% in the more urban environments, you know, for numerous reasons, getting hold of land and assets in you know, in the cities is always a challenge since Sydney I think is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Now. We try it primarily we try and set up a shed in the first instance, in a disused government building any country in Australia, there's generally plenty of those to choose from. And you know, they take up ownership and then they expand, you know, and that's part of the evolution there. So, with that number we've noticed in the last couple of years, it's not growing at the rate it was 10 years ago, when we were opening about three or four shifts per week. You know, now it's probably 2030 a year. So we're reaching a saturation point, you know, given the population and size of the country where I don't think we'll grow too much more. But the idea expanded, New Zealand are cousins just across the ditch, they took it on not long after we did. Then 2008 Nine I was contacted by a guy John avoid him. We're still very, very close friends John and I, who was working on a men's project in Ireland in County Wexford, and he found on the internet all about the Men's Shed movement and made contact with us and he started up the first shed in Ireland 2019 came over to Australia to one of our conferences and we educated him on the whole concept and where we're up to. And he took that back to Ireland and it was right at the end of the global financial crisis. You know, when Ireland was really heavily impacted, very high unemployment rate, and it exploded. I went over for my first trip in 2012. And we did a workshop for four days in town called gari in north central island, and it was funded by the European Union We had 28 people there from 12 countries that we educated all on sheds, some went back and develop sheds, others didn't. That didn't fit into doesn't fit into all cultures. But then it expanded throughout the all throughout the UK, Denmark, Iceland, I think there's men sheds now in 12 countries around the world, including in the United States.

Nicholas Hill  20:27  
So it sounds like the the Nordics have taken quite well to it than

David Helmers  20:31  
they have. And it was kind of an unusual one i And don't ask me to try and try and pronounce what they call them in shed their I do it's, I just look at the wording and I can't I'm not taking on that tongue twister. That fear of embarrassing myself severely. But they've taken their own spin on it. And look at this suited I didn't understand their culture at all. I've never been there before. Denmark, places like that, and it really fitted in well, and I think with the long winters and same with Iceland, it really provided an opportunity for men to get out during the winter, especially when there, there's not a great deal of the normal outdoor activities to do, and get together on a daily basis. So it really was a bit of a success in those countries.

Nicholas Hill  21:23  
If someone listening wanted to get involved, let's say someone wanted to join us shed, what are the requirements there? Is it something that's difficult to do? Or how does that work?

David Helmers  21:36  
No. policy in Australia, we do try and emphasize this around the world to all our partner organizations is it's an open door, you know, if they just come and participate, you don't have to be handy with the tools, there's all you know that you can learn that if you wish to learn that, you know, there's other skill sets, the sheds need to be administered. It's all about being together. And we're in the camaraderie, you know, a bit making the shed self sustainable. So there's no, you know, you've got everything from factory workers to lawyers and doctors in the shed with, there's a little saying in Australia, and officially amongst the sheds. If you're going to join a shed, you've got to leave your ego at the door. They don't really care what you did in the past, you know, who you were, what you are, anything like that in the shed, we're all men, and we're all there together.

Nicholas Hill  22:27  
I know also, David that the Australian Men's Shed Association has their own podcast, what you've had for quite a while now is and that's experienced some success if I'm not mistaken.

David Helmers  22:40  
Yeah, it has. We started it during COVID as a means to keep everyone connected. You know, COVID was a challenge for everybody. But for an organization that focuses on preventing social isolation, and all of a sudden now we had to promote, socially isolating, it was a real challenge for so we started the podcast and one of our directors on our board, which is all volunteer board. Gentleman I've known for years, Aaron Carney who was a radio broadcaster for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the ABC. And he kindly took it on. And it was a way of sharing information of what we're doing, you know, keeping the guys communicating with us or, you know, we, with, you know, 100,000 Odd men out there, we can't pick up the phone and ring them all. So it was one of the initiatives that we put there, and it grew. And we really didn't know, you know, the idea of a podcast was, Oh, what are we going to put on it? You know, we put a bit of health information, general information. We talked about the history of sheds, and we're running out of subjects. And we started just in introducing sections on, you know, general topic, things that would interest men and started interviewing people, from politicians to music celebrities, you know, and finding out what they did in their sheds, or you know a bit about their careers and things like that. And it started to grow, and we got 1000s and 1000s of people listening all of a sudden, then Aaron had to go back and took on a new job overseas. And he was good friends with a Australian pop star of the 70s and 80s. Gentlemen, John Paul Young, who also lived quite locally to our offices and John kindly put his hand up he that besides being a Australian music icon, he had also been a radio presenter. And he took on the role then of you know, hosting the podcast series, which we're up to about four seasons of now and next year we'll go into the next season and has been an accidental success purely purely has been, I think we're in the top 10 most listened to podcasts in Australia now.

Nicholas Hill  24:56  
That's incredible. Especially for something that started out with the goal of keeping men collaborating and communicating, and then to have that to have it work and to have it spread. And that way is awesome.

David Helmers  25:10  
It was just an accident really was.

Nicholas Hill  25:13  
Well, David, let me ask you for you know, for my final question, is there anything else that it for someone listening that they can do to support the Men's Shed movement or support the Australian Men's Shed Association directly?

David Helmers  25:28  
Like all, you know, charitable organizations, we run on the smell of literally have an oily rag support, as always, we're more than welcome. But I'd like to see, and this is how we started. You know, I never dreamed 15 years ago, there was only a temporary job for me for 12 months. And, you know, famously said, after 12 months, I'm going back to a real job, which kind of never really happened, this became my real job is gay, I always encourage people to get involved with with their sheds, you know, I know throughout the US that starting to evolve, so the US Men's Shed association would be more than happy to hear from people wanting to get involved was started shared in their in their area. But you know, it's just, yeah, help us maintain that, that growth and hopefully one day, and I can see it changing in my 15 years, we've got a world where we don't need men sheds anymore. That's one of the great things about when you're working in a preventative health space, the true measure of your success is when you no longer needed.

Nicholas Hill  26:37  
David, I just want to say thank you, sir, for your time today to volunteering to talk with us. And really for all the work that the Australian Men's Shed association is doing I'm really excited to continue to follow your work and hope you have an incredible rest of the year

David Helmers  26:53  
It's been an absolute pleasure. Thank you and you too.

Nicholas Hill  27:09  
Today's show was directed and produced by me with music from Alex Grohl special thanks to our guests for their time and insight. If you like today's episode, please follow us wherever you listen to podcasts, and consider leaving a review, as it will help us to spread the word about the show. You can view more information about today's episode online at acts of Thank you for listening