Stress perception is highly subjective, and so the complexity of nursing practice may result in variation between nurses in their identification of sources of stress, especially when the workplace and roles of nurses are changing, as is currently occurring in the United Kingdom health service. This could have implications for measures being introduced to address problems of stress in nursing. To identify nurses' perceptions of workplace stress, consider the potential effectiveness of initiatives to reduce distress, and identify directions for future research. A literature search from January 1985 to April 2003 was conducted using the key words nursing, stress, distress, stress management, job satisfaction, staff turnover and coping to identify research on sources of stress in adult and child care nursing. Recent (post-1997) United Kingdom Department of Health documents and literature about the views of practitioners was also consulted. Workload, leadership/management style, professional conflict and emotional cost of caring have been the main sources of distress for nurses for many years, but there is disagreement as to the magnitude of their impact. Lack of reward and shiftworking may also now be displacing some of the other issues in order of ranking. Organizational interventions are targeted at most but not all of these sources, and their effectiveness is likely to be limited, at least in the short to medium term. Individuals must be supported better, but this is hindered by lack of understanding of how sources of stress vary between different practice areas, lack of predictive power of assessment tools, and a lack of understanding of how personal and workplace factors interact. Stress intervention measures should focus on stress prevention for individuals as well as tackling organizational issues. Achieving this will require further comparative studies, and new tools to evaluate the intensity of individual distress.