The needs for support of staff in human services work are often stated, but less often is the nature of such support clearly specified. This study attempts to clarify the nature of effective support from a superior, as perceived by qualified nursing staff working in psychiatric, mental handicap and medical settings. ‘Personal respect’, ‘empathic attention’ and ‘absence of interpersonal defensiveness’ appeared to be important components to such support. Staff on the same ward showed a high degree of agreement in judgements of their superior's personal respect and empathic attention, but perceived interpersonal defensiveness appeared more specific to perceptions or interactions between particular staff. Greater degrees of ‘personal respect’ experienced by staff were associated with reduced role ambiguity and reduced emotional exhaustion (‘burnout’). The empathic attention reported as given by ward charge nurses was highly correlated with the personal respect they reported receiving from their own superior. These results support approaches which see respect, empathy and genuineness as important ingredients in helping relationships.