This study retrospectively surveyed 1,216 nurses at hospitals in Belgium and The Netherlands. Data concerning workloads, musculoskeletal symptoms, work loss and psychosocial factors were collected by questionnaire. Lifetime prevalence rates for musculoskeletal problems and low back trouble were significantly lower in the Dutch hospitals than the Belgian hospitals, but a significantly higher proportion of Dutch nurses had 'heavy' workloads. Overall, symptoms and work loss in the previous 12 months were not related to workload, nor was the perception that work was causative; a change of duties because of symptoms was rare (< 3%). The Dutch nurses differed strikingly from Belgian nurses on the psychosocial variables; they were less depressed and significantly more positive about pain, work and activity. It is proposed that ergonomic interventions alone may be sub-optimal in controlling musculoskeletal problems among nurses. The additional provision of psychosocoial information to challenge misconceptions and encourage sell-management is proposed.