Reports of poor working conditions persist amid ongoing healthcare restructuring. Simultaneously, nursing shortage threats continue as the nursing population ages. Leadership strategies that create empowering working conditions are likely to retain nurses who are eligible to retire, and attract future nurses to the profession. Several studies have focused on leader behaviours and structural empowerment in recent years and how these impact the work environment and staff engagement. Correlations among leader empowering behaviours, structural empowerment and work engagement have been demonstrated (Laschinger et al. 1999; Peachey 2002); however, there is a gap in the empirical literature as to how leader empowering behaviours influence nurses’ work engagement by creating structurally empowering work environments. Kanter’s (1977, 1993) structural empowerment theory was used to test this proposition using data from a cross-sectional study of 322 Ontario staff nurses. Mediation analysis revealed that structural empowerment partially mediated the influence of leader empowering behaviours on work engagement. The implications for healthcare managers and leaders are discussed with a view to the recruitment and retention of nursing staff, by fostering greater work engagement.