Helen Mason’s care for the community


“I’m proud of being a nurse and a midwife and my greatest achievement is my son,” says Helen Mason, the woman in charge of an $800 million budget for health funding.

She’s Chief Executive of the Bay of Plenty District Health Board (BoP DHB) with a staff of 3,300 and the state of the community’s health in her tender care. And tender it is. Her first and foremost value is compassion: for the sick and ageing; for family and whānau, and for her staff.

“CARE is the acronym for how we run our hospital and services,” Helen explains. “That stands for Compassion, All One Team, Responsive, Excellence.”

And BoP DHB is clearly heading in the right direction, with five out of six Health Targets achieved in the last six months, a considerable improvement from two years back. Health Targets are one means by which the Ministry of Health gauges the performance of its District Health Boards, who report on them quarterly.

And yes, the results are made public.

Success sits lightly on Helen; she’s slender and articulate, with a truck driver’s handshake. In her mid-50s, she’s been CE for a few years now, working her way up the ranks over the past 20 years with BoP DHB.

Born in Ireland, Helen and her two sisters were raised single-handed by their mother. A nurse, too, she worked mostly in Zimbabwe, caring mainly for high-need indigenous patients.

“I’m from a long line of nurses,” Helen confirms. “Both my sisters started their careers as nurses and Mom was our inspiration. I’d go into town with her on a Saturday when I was little, or she’d pick me up from school or ballet on her Wednesday half-day, still in her uniform.

“As we walked down the street the people she’d helped would come up to say hello or thank you, or update her on a family member. It was my mother’s great professional skill and compassionate involvement in the community that made me want to make a difference like that.”

That’s what drives Helen. “About half of our budget goes on running our hospitals, Tauranga and Whakatāne. But the District Health Board is broader than that, and also funds a wide range of community and primary providers: GPs, pharmacies, labs, kaupapa, rest homes, mental health units and dental and hospice services.

“We need strong hospitals, but what we’re working hard on is keeping our community well by finding out what key support is needed. We want to achieve enhanced residential care so the elderly don’t end up coming to hospital in an ambulance at midnight.”

She leans forward. “I have an appetite for change. The DHB has an appetite for change. Our staff support the need for change, which is largely driven by our teams; by nurses in particular. But we must make sure that nobody is left high and dry by change.”

Reworking the culture of the organisation came first. “Research in the UK showed that better communication equals better care. When staff were 5% more engaged and liking their work, the mortality rate dropped by 3%.”

She laughs. “If you had a pill to do that you’d patent it and make a fortune. We engaged our staff differently, using the CARE values, for colleagues and work, expecting it to be returned.”

It was. The kindness of the staff to patients is recorded on the walls as you walk in – not the clinical outcomes, but the kindness, to make compassion visible. The nurses’ strike was a difficult time. How did negotiations affect Helen’s relationship with her nurses?

“It was a long process, and professional throughout. Everyone involved worked hard for a good resolution. We were all focused on the same outcome: appropriate pay for nurses that recognises their skill and experience, and improved working conditions. I respect the right of workers and the union to take industrial action.”

Helen Mason likes to push herself physically and mentally. She was recently in the UK for a conference and made time to visit her son Mungo who plays professional rugby in Scotland. The two of them tested the Edinburgh Festival ferris wheel, 44m high, in high winds and self-rotating.

Then off to family connections in Ireland, a local girl again in Kilrush, a village on the west coast. “The heat wave was over and it was good Irish weather,” Helen smiles. “I walked along the cliffs in the driving wind and rain. Great stuff. Next stop America! Pushing against that wind, at one with nature, fully alive and invigorated.”

Pushing herself at work, too. Stepping outside of boundaries to a place of empowerment. In 2014-15 Helen was awarded a Harkness Scholarship, attending a London conference to share with Harkness Fellows from the last 20 years the effectiveness of research and policies.

“An impressive group,” Helen admits. “I was also on two panels. I shared my passion and research on aged patient care and told them about Red Chairs and Let’s Get Moving.”

Red Chairs? “That’s about seeing things from a patient’s point of view. You’re admitted, put in a hospital gown and into bed in a busy room with no windows, surrounded by strangers mostly over 80. You wait up to 48 hours to see a specialist. You’re immobilised, confused, after living independently at home. You’d not be your usual self, would you? How then do you present that to a specialist? He’d see you out of context.”

That certainly made sense.

“So we changed the name to Assessment Planning Unit. Took out some beds and replaced them with red Laz-Y-Boys. And now you stay in your own clothes, your usual self. The senior doctor can make a better diagnosis in that context.”

She’s thoughtful, and adds, “In reality, it’s best not to be in hospital at all. Once you’re in, it can be hard to get out.”

Common sense! And Let’s Get Moving?

“That was an effort to experience the mindset of patients, to generate conversations with them. Technical excellence with brusqueness is not enough. Our staff were asked to come to work in their pyjamas, and around 50 agreed.”

A pyjama party? Did it work?

“It was harder to do their usual work. When you’re in pyjamas you’re not supposed to be efficient and recording things. You should be on the sofa watching Netflix.”

Asked by some Harkness fellows if she’d written a paper on it, she told them, “The team just did it.”

Later, reflecting on her career, she tells me, “I’ve been lucky in that others saw a kernel of something in me and helped when I needed help. When Max and I were in Scotland where he did his MBA, he suggested I did one, too. I also was given a foot in the door as a health care assistant when we came to New Zealand.” (Max, to whom she’s been married for 28 years, is TCC City Councillor Max Mason.)

“I’ve had incredible support and guidance from Phil Cammish, past CE of BoP DHB, Sally Webb, our Chair, and many others. And I knew what I didn’t want to be like, trying to get through an agenda instead of allowing time to listen to what people think.” Listening to good advice, too. A friend, Derek Feeley, reassured her. “Don’t try to be something you’re not, Helen. If you’ve a gap in policy development, say, think what you’ve got in strategic planning and contracts.”

A long time back, worried whether she’d be taken seriously enough, another mentor suggested it was in her head and to ‘get over yourself.’

Permission to stop worrying about people’s responses, and to know instead, “I’m here, I belong,” and to put herself forward instead of waiting to be asked.

So what good advice has she got for other women in a position of such responsibility?

Here’s Helen’s tips:

  • Build a great network of family and friends around you.
  • Resist the temptation to be all things to all, wanting to please. Find the fortitude to say no.
  • Being successful is finding time for what’s most important.
  • For men as well as women, get the work/life balance right. You can’t keep spending massive hours at work.
  • Exercise is important. I do yoga and run.
  • Like the Harvard Business Review advises, be intentional or mindful about developing good habits. Leave your desk clear.
  • At the end of the day, do two easy tasks so you go home with a sense of satisfaction, even if that big job is still unfinished.

One more thing she’s proud of?

“BoP DHB has a Clinical School and it’s developed and grown so well since it was launched in 2007 that Auckland University’s School of Medicine has awarded us clinical campus status.”

That’s big, but only the latest achievement. As this hardworking and dedicated CE Helen herself says, she’s still a work in progress, still going strong. How fortunate for the community that Helen Mason chose to live here in the Bay of Plenty and use that kindness, compassion and drive for our continuing health and wellbeing.

Kinsa Hays

Kinsa Hays

Kinsa writes for children, particularly environmental stories in the Magical Realism genre. She has also won awards for her short stories and poems for adults. She contributed to a community book The People’s History of the Bay of Plenty in writing, editing and collating stories the public sent in. Recently she created a website for her writing and her art and can be found at kinsahays.com