These days, feeling stressed at work is practically a given. But you'd think that once you fall asleep, you'd be free from worries about pending project reports and pop-ins from your boss.
Unfortunately, that's hardly the case. Our anxiety about work often spills over into our dreams. Sometimes those dreams are easy to interpret; for example, you might dream about getting fired because you're afraid of it happening in real life. Others, like falling from a great height, are less obviously connected to work anxiety.
We consulted Michael Lennox, Ph.D., a psychologist and an expert in dream interpretation, to find out what the most common work-related anxiety dreams are — and what they're trying to tell you.
Having sex with a coworker
Lennox says one of the most common workplace dreams he hears is about sex with a coworker — one you're not even remotely attracted to and would never have sex with in real life.
But this dream isn't really about sex. "It takes on a completely different perspective when sex is introduced as a symbol for integration," Lennox says. In other words, you probably want to incorporate some aspect of your coworker's personality into your own.
He gives an example of a client who dreamed about sleeping with her coworker before she had to give a stressful presentation in real life. Lennox helped the woman figure out that her coworker was a skilled public speaker and she wished to emulate that quality.
When you dream about being terminated from your job, Lennox says you're unconsciously practicing dealing with the anxiety of actually being fired.
"So you can go into work feeling confident that if you get fired, you know how to do it. I mean that in a weird hyperconscious sort of way."
Being at the office
If you constantly dream about simply being present in your work environment, there's a good chance you're experiencing overwhelming stress.
"There's so much stress there that needs to be offloaded," Lennox says. "That's just a signal that the work stress is so great that you're processing it in your sleep."
Lennox says dreaming about being naked is a "perfect symbolic expression" of feeling like a fraud at work (also known as impostor syndrome).
Many people privately experience the fear that other people will find out that they don't really know what they're doing. Being naked at work could mean, Lennox says, that "I will be seen for who I really am. And that will be terrifying."
Killing your boss
Lennox explains that being violent in a dream is often a way of compensating for feeling disempowered at work.
A dream about murdering your supervisor is essentially a dream about "righting a wrong, of feeling like you're able to respond to feelings of being dominated or controlled or dismissed."
Because it's generally unacceptable to act violent in the real workplace, Lennox says we exercise that impulse in dreams instead. "We come back to the working world where have to be under their thumb once again, but the visceral violent act [in the dream] sets the scales back to balance."
Riding the elevator
In dreams, an elevator ride between different floors of a building often symbolizes the transition between different modes of thinking, Lennox says. So it could potentially indicate that you feel unimaginative or uninspired if you've been tasked with generating ideas for a project.
It's about "that anxiety of not being able to be more creative," he says.
This dream is pretty literal, Lennox says. Punctuality connects to accountability for keeping your word.
A dream about lateness is basically a form of performance anxiety. "It's about feeling like you're gonna' fall short of what's expected of you."
Searching for a new job
If you're currently unemployed, this dream is probably just a reflection of your anxieties about being out of work.
But if you have a job, Lennox says the dream could be "an expression of a desire to expand, to have more of your capabilities utilized." You might even want to receive more recognition and compensation for your talents and skills in the workplace, he adds.
Often people dream about being pursued by a wild animal or an assailant.
And while on the surface this dream might seem pretty general, Lennox says it often reflects anxiety about work.
"At work generally people are feeling pressured to perform and so the pursuer then becomes the relentless, never-ending demands of the job. You're just constantly being chased by the demand to attend to everything that you have to do."
Again, this common anxiety dream isn't obviously related to your professional life. But Lennox says it could easily reflect a lack of authority in the workplace.
"If you're dreaming of falling, look to the places in your work life where you feel like you're trying to exert some control that's unattainable."
Being unprepared for a test
People commonly dream of being unprepared for a test in high school or college – even if they graduated years ago. And Lennox says it’s often triggered by performance anxiety at work.
High school and college "are the first places where we learn about responsibility and accountability. [The dream] will often recur when we’re faced with the same sense of pressure in our current waking life."