This article draws on concepts of morality and demoralisation to understand the problematic nature of relationships between staff and patients in public health services. The article uses data from a case study of a UK hospital Emergency Department to show how staff are tasked with the responsibility of treating and caring for patients, while at the same time their actions are shaped by the institutional concerns of accountability and resource management. The data extracts illustrate how such competing agendas create a tension for staff to manage and suggests that, as a consequence of this tension, staff participate in processes of ‘effacement’ that limit the presence of patients and families as a moral demand. The analysis from the Emergency Department case study suggests that demoralisation is an increasingly important lens through which to understand health-care institutions, where contemporary organisational cultures challenge the ethical quality of human interaction.