You walked into his office, looked him straight in the eye, and told him everything you thought about his management skills. Then you took off on your magical unicorn and flew out the window, victorious! Unfortunately, this moment of glory was (probably) a dream.
After working all day, many professionals find themselves back at the office in their sleep. So, should you worry if you dream about being late for work or arriving in your pyjamas? Is it a bad sign if your colleagues, boss, or clients regularly appear in your dreams? Let’s look at the meaning of work dreams!
Is it normal to dream about work?
Work takes up most of your day, so it’s natural for it to spill into your dream life, too. Dreams allow us to prepare for certain situations and get rid of tension. Elsa Andron, an occupational and clinical psychologist, offers the following explanation for this phenomenon: “You dream more about work when you’re tired and/or more worried about a situation or a professional task. In your dreams, you explore different scenarios—most often negative—that allow you unconsciously to prepare for them and avoid the real occurrence of these scenarios.” By simulating potential threats, dreams prepare our brains for avoiding or resolving a problem more quickly.
Once asleep, our brains shed all social codes and conventions, remove barriers, and allow us to reflect differently. According to the sleep researcher Robert Stickgold, the mix of current worries, new experiences, and old events stimulate creativity. By juxtaposing situations and responses that seemingly have no connection, the brain discovers new possibilities and is powered by this “quasi-experience.” Certain discoveries and certain works have even resulted from some particularly crazy dreams. In his book
Intuition and the Sixth Sense, Jocelin Morisson writes about how they led to the Devil’s Trill Sonata being composed by Tartini, the cubic equation being solved by Girolamo Cardano, and Jean de La Fontaine writing the fable The Two Pigeons.
When can work dreams become a problem?
Dreams are part of a complex process of distancing yourself from work. They reveal, literally or metaphorically, what torments us throughout the day. But the dream can overstep its natural role of catalyst and indicate real suffering.
More than half of French professionals, for example, have nightmares about work. This can be a sign of serious tension, especially when they happen frequently. “If dreams create unease in the dreamer and they start recurring, it’s important to reflect on what they’re trying to tell us,” says Andron. “The recurring dream can often signify a real situation where we’re feeling trapped.” And when the office makes too regular an appearance in our dreams, it’s also a message from our brain that we need to take it easy. “If we dream too often about work, it’s also sometimes an indication of a poor work-life balance, with the difficulty of detaching ourselves from our work environment becoming part of our dream activity,” she continues. “It’s important to take these signals into account, and to get help or take some time for yourself.”
What are the most common dreams about work?
Researchers in California have created a “dream bank,” an online archive where details of more than 22,000 dreams have been collected, drawn from a variety of sources and studies, allowing specialists to analyze their recurrence by country, sex, and profession. So, what are the most common work-based dreams, and what do they mean?
- Dreams of powerlessness or failure. Getting lost during a meeting, forgetting an important file, or losing your voice during a professional presentation are some of the most common nightmares people have about work. Are they premonitions? No—they’re the opposite. In a study by Isabelle Arnulf, a neurologist and the director of the sleep pathology unit at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, students who dreamed of failure before an exam got better results than others. The nightmare thus serves the same cognitive function as a dream, preparing us to confront or avoid a threat before it happens.
- Dreams of being naked at work. After calmly arriving at your open-plan office, you suddenly realize that you’ve forgotten your pants (and your underwear)… “This dream, often anxiety-inducing, can suggest that the dreamer has felt symbolically naked at work in reality after sharing something about their personal life with colleagues that wasn’t received as hoped,” says Andron. “This dream reflects the shame often felt when being vulnerable doesn’t have positive results.”
We could cite many more examples, such as dreaming about your boss, or even dreaming of quitting. Ultimately, dreaming about work is a natural way of eliminating tension, preparing us for the unexpected, and consolidating knowledge. As long as our dreams don’t become too dark or recur too often, they’re a normal, healthy outlet.
Translated by Kate Lindsmith
Photograph: Welcome to the Jungle
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