fancy your job?

fancy your job?

by Cato Hemels

Many workers indicate that they consider meaningfulness important. But what exactly is meaning? And what does it require from managers? Time to dive deeper into the subject of meaning.

Meaning at different levels

René Gude, philosopher and former Thinker of the Fatherland, acknowledged that we are inclined to get into mental mud when we talk about meaning in work. We tend to talk about sublime things, such as spirituality, inspiring leadership, silence, balance and inspiration. Vague terms that can easily be exchanged for other “gabble terms” in discussions, such as “feeling good” and “being positive in the world”. We don't get along with that, says Gude. According to him, giving meaning is not something higher or spiritual, but something practical, something traditional. 

Meaning can be found in almost every profession. That doesn't have to be high-flown at all. Helping customers over the phone or selling a product you believe in can be very rewarding. After all, meaning comes from small things: a nurse who stays longer after a long night shift to provide aftercare to the relatives of a deceased patient; a waitress who smiles when she brings you coffee, a postman who goes through all kinds of weather to deliver your letter on time. 

Four kinds of 'meaning'

Gude thought that it should be possible to enter into a discussion about meaning and work in clear, unambiguous terms. He created practical definitions of "meaning". The AWVN employers' association took over after his death and published the book 'Zin in werk' (2017) as a result of his work. This includes the four types of "meaning" that Gude distinguished: 

1. Sensualism: The first form of meaning is the state of mind you are in when your senses are stimulated. Feel like it, the physical aspect, the lustful, the delicious. You can also think of physical contact, movement, zest for life, pleasure, passion and vitality.

2. Senses: The second type of meaning implies that your senses perceive the beautiful. Think for example of the building in which you work. A fresh, beautiful, colorful, warm and attractive building is such a sensory place.

3. Meaningfulness: This form of meaning allows you to articulate experiences. It is the conceptual level of meaning; giving meaning by assigning meaning. You experience a task (your work / an action) as more pleasant if you understand the meaning of the task. Meaningfulness is negatively affected by loss of autonomy. When employees are only responsible for a small part of a complete product, they are less able to articulate what they do exactly and the meaningfulness decreases.

4. Significance: You endorse the objectives of the company or organization for which you work. The choice for a job is less and less determined by financial motives and increasingly determined by the question of what you would prefer to do for which organization. This means that giving meaning to life also becomes an HR issue.

When these four types of meaning are embraced, the result is sustainable employability. Meaning gives a more vital feeling, increased productivity, less stress and even fewer sickness reports. That makes sense, when you consider that it is about the motivation and values of workers. The English say "what makes someone tick" for a reason. For example, Gude saw a burnout, something that is now common, as an extreme consequence of the lack of meaning. 

The role of the organization

Sociologist Christien Brinkgeve makes a small comment on Gude's model. She believes that it places a lot of emphasis on the responsibility of the individual and that the role of the organization remains underexposed. She therefore asks how you, as a manager in an organization, develop authority in a correct, non-authoritarian way. The answer, she says, is communicating, establishing connections and involving employees in the organization of work. Discussion topics that are important in this respect are, for example: what is the value of your work to you and when do you feel satisfied? 

You can argue that the connection previously sought in religion is now sought in work. Connection, appreciation and meaning are of great importance in work. Brinkgeve tells - partly from his own experience - that if they disappear, you have to put a lot of energy in your uphold. You feel lonely, end up in isolation and commit robbery on your own energy supply. "I gradually felt like an old currency that devalued by the year." Brinkgeve concludes that from an employer's perspective, Gude's model is a valuable addition to thinking about depression and burnout. The practical message that goes with it is: look for the story of the employee. 


  1. AWWN (pdf)
  2. NRC