• acute care;
  • nursing;
  • organizational change;
  • qualitative methodology

This paper makes a case for the attractiveness of acute mental health inpatient nursing (acute nursing) and argues that an altered perception of this work is essential if we are to provide the most acutely mentally ill and vulnerable people with a stable and expert nursing workforce. The discussion draws on an ethnographic study conducted in an inner-city psychiatric unit in England and the advantages of this method for understanding nursing work are described. Within our findings, we set out two overarching themes: the contextual realities of the contemporary acute ward and features of attraction that encourage nurses to work in the acute care setting. The former includes nurses’ responsibility for the total ward environment and the latter the ‘comfort of closeness’ and ‘surviving and thriving in chaos and crisis’. In conclusion, we argue that despite the unpopularity of the acute inpatient mental health environment, the highly sophisticated skills employed by acute nurses actually ensure the promotion of health for the majority of service users.