I love dreaming—and I’m a good dreamer. Every night, I go to sleep intrigued and excited to see what my imagination will come up with for the night ahead. Perhaps I’ll dive into an ocean hidden within the depths of a washing machine or maybe I’ll fly the Wright brothers’ airplane in a raging thunderstorm to get to a buffet of cakes (yes, those are both real dreams I’ve had).
But when it comes to having dreams (or nightmares) about work, that’s when the anxiety kicks in. You know the type, you dream about missing an important deadline or having your boss scream at you. It’s not fun. So, what does it mean when we start dreaming about work? Which stress factors are more likely to seep into our slumber? And are there common work dreams that employees share?
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Why do we dream about work?
Unfortunately, dreams aren’t always about having super powers or doing outrageously fun things—a lot of the time they involve mundane content from our everyday lives, which includes our jobs and work life. Since the average American spends 34.4 hours at work per week, it makes sense that thoughts about work bleed into our dreams.
According to research, 65 percent of workers say that workplace stress has caused difficulties in their lives and 25 percent view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives. Unsurprisingly, we don’t usually dream about loving our jobs—work-related dreams are linked to job stress, and 65 percent of women report waking up from them feeling stressed out and fearful about their jobs.
Funny enough, although dreams aren’t reality, dreams about work can actually give us some insight into our waking lives and what our subconscious is trying to tell us about our insecurities and goals.
Common stress factors that lead to work dreams
Financial issues: If you’re worried about a below average salary or a recession affecting your career and finances, you’re not alone. Research shows that 25 percent of people worry “all” or “most” of the time about their income and expenses.
Workaholism: If you’re addicted to work to the exclusion of relaxation or hobbies, you might be a workaholic. Studies show that workaholics tend to struggle with “switching off” from work and suffer from mental health issues such as anxiety or depression.
Imposter syndrome: Essentially, imposter syndrome is a feeling of personal doubt, inadequacy, and incompetency that stems from negative inner thoughts, not concrete reasoning, so it’s easy for the sentiment to sneak into our dreams.
Deadlines: For employees who aren’t deadline-driven, strive for perfection, or tend to procrastinate, looming dates can be a huge stressor and nightmare-fueler.
New coworkers: If you have a work wife, you might become jealous if your BFF starts growing closer to a new hire. Or you might have different personality types and working styles, and trying to collaborate is giving you stress.
New responsibilities: Say you’ve just landed a promotion or you’re set to present at an important board meeting next week. New responsibilities like these are exciting because it means your boss sees your value and talent, but they can also be nerve-wracking when you feel pressured to live up to expectations.
Performance reviews: 1:1s and performance reviews are always stressful—especially when there’s no set agenda beforehand and you don’t receive feedback throughout the year. Unknowns like these can cause an unwarranted fear of failure.
Asking for a raise or promotion: It takes a lot of courage to hype yourself up to prepare to ask your boss for a raise or promotion. If you’re worried about getting rejected or laughed at (which is highly unlikely), you might start having work nightmares.
6 common work dreams and what they mean
1. You’re late to work
It’s bad enough when you’re late in real life, but being late in a dream is seriously anxiety-inducing. You know the drill—you dream that your car is driving too slowly or the brakes don’t work or your legs feel like they’re trudging through mud on your morning commute, and you subsequently arrive late to work.
The interpretation: Many psychologists theorize that if you’re dreaming about running late, you’re likely feeling “stuck” in life or you’re stressed about an upcoming deadline. It could also be a sign that you feel like you’re missing out on a career opportunity (like a promotion) and can’t find the courage to stand up for what you deserve.
2. You’re unprepared for a big assignment or event
Whether it’s drawing a blank before a big presentation or feeling like you’re severely underprepared for an exam, this is a super common work dream. Sometimes you might even be in the midst of an interview and can’t get your words out or worse—realize you’re not wearing clothes.
The interpretation: Usually, these dreams are tied to real upcoming assignments or events at work that you’re stressing over. If you like to be over prepared and not be put on the spot, the anxiety of getting ready for your assignment or event might start seeping into your REM cycle time.
3. You’re simply doing your job
Sometimes, nothing noteworthy happens in a work dream—it simply feels like another regular workday, and you’re performing your normal duties. Perhaps you’re sitting at your desk, monotonously typing away, responding to emails, or maybe you’re having a water cooler chat with a coworker.
The interpretation: You might be overworked and underappreciated. If you start performing your job in your sleep and you know you’ve been feeling the pressure at work in real life, it’s probably time to take vacation and let your mind truly rest.
4. You show up at an old job
Hello, Twilight Zone, talk about a blast from the past. In this type of work dream, you might show up to work at an office from a previous job or internship and even see old coworkers or bosses. Seriously disturbing stuff.
The interpretation: This could indicate that you’re carrying around unresolved feelings and emotional baggage from a toxic job. If you haven’t properly dealt with the feelings from this negative experience, this dream is your subconscious knocking and telling you to do so. Similarly, this dream could mean that there is a positive lesson from an old job that could apply to your life now, but you haven’t realized it yet.
5. You get fired
Maybe your boss is screaming at you to get out of the building immediately or it’s a more solemn discussion about how your performance has been less than stellar. Either way, getting dream-fired is a horrible feeling.
The interpretation: This dream likely points to insecurity or instability in your real life—whether work-related or not. It could be related to that nasty imposter syndrome at your job or it could indicate that you’ve hit a wall and are ready for a career change to shake things up.
6. You get stuck in an elevator
Nothing is worse than feeling trapped in a small, claustrophobic space in a dream. And when that space happens to be a work elevator with non-functioning buttons and no escape, it’s 10x more stressful.
The interpretation: In this dream, the elevator represents your career trajectory. If you get stuck, it might mean that you’re fearful of not progressing in your career as you’d hoped and you feel trapped. If you keep having this dream, consider if your career now feels like a dead end.