Men's Shed tackles social isolation

Sarah’s created an activity and health hub for men who are retired, unable to work or unemployed, helping them form friendships and take control of their wellbeing

When Sarah Everett, a practice sister in Govan, near Glasgow, applied for a £5,000 grant to become a “catalyst for change” in her local community, it began a process that would transform lives.

The grant, offered by the Queen’s Nursing Institute Scotland (QNIS), kick-started Men’s Shed Govan, a project that has encouraged a sense of purpose by engaging men in creative activities to help combat isolation. It has also provided opportunities to check and advise on their physical health.

“I had seen some very successful groups for women in Govan and the impact they had on patients’ lives over the years,” Sarah says. “The groups gave them a sense of belonging, something to do, somewhere to go and make friends, and have relationships away from their often troubled lives.”

Nurse Sarah Everett inside the Men's Shed Govan

Sarah Everett

But there was nothing similar for men. “In Govan there is a real culture of men going to the pub or bookies and even there, they’re often sitting on their own, which is sad to see.”

Once established, Sarah’s group expanded quickly. It went from five men meeting in her health centre office to a bigger space in a neighbouring clinic, and eventually to a derelict former nursery, which the men set about transforming.

Sarah is quick to emphasise that it’s been a team effort, and credits group members for their graft. “They worked like Trojans to transform the site into what it is today – a very pleasant and welcoming community hub with garden, raised beds and polytunnel, and facilities to support cookery classes, woodwork, arts and crafts, model-making, a games area and, just recently, an exercise room with treadmill, exercise bike and cross-trainer.”

More than medicine

Sarah also acknowledges the support of the GPs she works for who, because they understood the value of the project, allowed her a few hours a week to work on it. 

Men’s Shed Govan fits with the Scottish government’s promotion of social prescribing and a “more than medicine” approach to mental health, where participation in groups and activities is encouraged as it helps build feelings of belonging.

There were challenges, not least securing the funding to make the project sustainable. Sarah spent every spare moment writing grant applications. But her efforts paid off. More than 60% of her funding applications were successful.

Nurse Sarah Everett and members of Men's Shed Govan pose for a group shot in the garden outside the shed

Evaluation of Men’s Shed Govan has demonstrated clear improvements in mental health. A report written for the QNIS says all those involved have found it to be a positive experience. In many cases it has been life-changing. “I almost don’t recognise the person I was,” one member said. Sarah describes the changes in some men as “staggering”.

Turning an idea into a successful, sustainable reality has also helped develop her own skills, particularly in negotiation, organising and presenting – and, as she puts it, “multi-multi-tasking”. 

Her close involvement as a practice nurse distinguishes the Govan project from the wider Men in Sheds movement, allowing her to pick up on undiagnosed health conditions such as hypertension.

She applies the same “health by stealth” approach to promoting healthy lifestyles. “For example, the men used to bring in rolls and sausages for lunch but that’s changed to tuna or chicken salad, purely because of the look on my face!”

Patient perspective

John says Sarah handed him a lifeline when she set up Men’s Shed Govan:

“When I retired two years ago, I didn't want to feel that there was nowhere to go other than the pub or bookies. Sarah consulted me and other men in my position and was sensitive to my mental and physical health needs. She knew there was little motivation to make healthy lifestyle choices. So under her guidance, we formed a committee.

“It became obvious we needed dedicated premises, so Sarah liaised with council officials, pursuing all options, before securing a derelict children’s nursery.

“Now it’s a place where a growing group of men take part in activities such as woodwork, gardening and cooking, as well as making friends. We support each other and the shed is a sanctuary for some.

Inside the Men's Shed Govan, John Alexander holds darts with a darts board in the background

John Alexander 

“Sarah offers support in an informal way, alongside helping us improve the management of long-term conditions. She has relentlessly pursued this when no-one else in the area thought it necessary. She dedicates hours to navigating her way around red tape and has an infectious and vibrant enthusiasm.

“She motivates everyone involved to keep going, even when we have been dealt bitter blows. Her ability to lead and cajole is what has made the shed possible.

“It would have been easy to ignore what many men in our community desperately needed, or to assume someone else would rise to the challenge. But Sarah did not, she embraced the opportunity and believed in us as we pursued this shared dream.”

Reward for hard work

In July, Sarah was named winner of the Patient’s Choice category in the RCNi Nurse Awards, a tribute to her dedication and passion. “You have to be committed as it’s a lot of work,” she says. “But I have never done anything in my career so rewarding – and it’s a great feeling.”

Words by Daniel Allen. Pictures by Mike Wilkinson

Read next...