Recent policy initiatives within the United Kingdom have recognized that effective care for older people can only be achieved if health care staff are willing and skilled enough to address patient needs in a holistic way. The preliminary stages of the action research project described here focused on the perceptions of nursing staff regarding the factors that impacted on their ability to address mental health needs within a general hospital ward. A phenomenological approach allowed us to identify the experience of addressing mental health needs in this setting from the perspective of the research participants. A focus group was facilitated with nursing staff whose primary professional focus was the provision of physical health care within an older adult unit. Thematic content analysis was used to analyse the focus group data, and four key themes emerged, namely ‘disruption’, ‘role conflict’, ‘professional resources’ and ‘professional distress’. These themes provide a focus for the ongoing development of the action research methods and will embed future work in the experience of those charged with ensuring that mental health care is a key element of their practice. This study highlights the urgent need for further work in this area, as we contend that it is only by addressing the professional needs of the staff concerned, that effective patient-centred care can be ensured.