It’s hard to stop thinking about your job, even when you’re asleep. Nine-to-fivers frequently dream they’re late for a meeting or an airplane departure. Starbucks baristas have been caught calling out orders for “grande skim lattes” from bed. One of my overworked friends says she’s started dreaming entirely in Gchat, the program she uses to communicate with her bosses. A good night’s rest is supposed to help you recover from daily stress, but how effective is that if you can’t leave work at work?
According to a study published this month in the journal Sleep, common nightmare themes vary by gender. Researchers at the Université de Montréal analyzed the dreams of 331 subjects and found men have more nightmares about insects, being chased and physically attacked, and natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes. Women’s nightmares more often hinge on interpersonal conflict, featuring feelings of humiliation and rejection.
Work-focused dreams mirror these patterns, according to Ian Wallace, psychologist and author of 2011’s The Top 100 Dreams. Men regularly imagine they’re being pursued through the office, sometimes naked. “Or they’re in inappropriate clothing—a clown’s outfit—or they’re wearing a strange hat,” says Wallace, who theorizes this plays on a man’s fear of appearing vulnerable. Many women dream that their mouths are stuffed full of chewing gum or some other substance, and they can’t pull it out. Or maybe “she’s parked her car somewhere, and then she comes back, and it’s disappeared,” he says. “It’s all about finding ambition, getting in gear.”
Wallace’s interpretations are controversial. Many experts say dreams are simply a tool the brain uses to process thoughts and memories. Yet most agree with Wallace that the gender divide has become less pronounced since the 1950s, as women have increasingly joined the workforce. Today, more of their dreams “resemble the average dreams of men,” says Antonio Zadra, one of the Montréal study’s authors. “Less friendly, more aggressive, more reflective of workplaces.” Women’s dreams also used to be populated equally by both sexes; now, like men’s, they include more men.
Which leads to an unavoidable topic: office sex dreams. “A common example is you wake up in the morning and realize you had a dream where you were in bed with the most unattractive and least interesting person in your office,” says Robert Stickgold, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Zadra suggests such dreams may in fact result from underlying attractions or because the co-worker reminds you of someone, but Stickgold says it’s probably your brain “identifying the relationship with that person as unsettled.” According to preliminary studies of sex dreams, men are more likely to envision fictional partners, whereas specific colleagues—or friends or spouses—show up more often in women’s dreams.
Erotic fantasies aside, dreaming about work can be productive. At least two Nobel prizes have been awarded for inventions developed during sleep, according to Deirdre Barrett, Stickgold’s colleague at Harvard and author of The Committee of Sleep. The legendary Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev said he dreamed up the periodic table of elements in its complete form. Robert Louis Stevenson claimed to have derived two key scenes of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde during his slumber.
Nongeniuses benefit from work dreams, too. A 2013 Harvard study found that people who learned a task and napped before being tested on it did better than subjects who went sleepless. Those who dreamed about the task during the nap performed best of all, even if their dreams seemed wild and incoherent.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean professional dreams reduce anxiety. One NPR announcer told Stickgold about a recurring dream: “In it, he’s driving in his car, and the theme song for All Things Considered comes on, and he realizes he’s supposed to be in the studio,” Stickgold says. “I told him, ‘Maybe it’s worth getting in 15 minutes earlier than usual. Not because you need to, but so you can stop worrying about it.’ ”