Despite recent increases in nursing recruitment in Australia, participation in the workforce is still below the numbers predicted to meet future needs. This paper discusses factors impacting on nurses' job satisfaction, satisfaction with nursing and intention to leave in public sector hospitals in New South Wales (NSW), Australia. Staffing and patient data were collected on 80 medical and surgical units during 2004/5. This included a wide range of individual nurse data from a Nurse Survey; detailed and comprehensive staffing data including skill mix variables; patient characteristics; workload data; a profile of the ward's characteristics; and adverse event patient data. Nurses who were intending to remain in their job were more likely to be satisfied, be older, and have dependents. They were also likely to be experiencing good leadership and to have allied health support on the ward. Most nurses reported being satisfied with their profession, while a lower proportion reported satisfaction with their current position. Work environment factors such as nurses' autonomy, control over their practice and nursing leadership on the ward were statistically significant predictors of job satisfaction. This study will inform decision-making and policy for managers in both the public and private hospital sectors. This is the first large study which explored the work environment at the ward/unit level in public hospitals in NSW (Australia). It illustrates that there are no typical wards; each ward functions differently. The importance of nursing leadership at the ward level to job satisfaction, satisfaction with nursing and intention to leave, cannot be overstated.