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Bench & Cubicle

Chemjobber on stress dreams about work

How our minds deal with a tough week at work, even while we’re sleeping

by Chemjobber, special to C&EN
October 13, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 38


An image of a person sleeping with a cutaway to their nightmare about a lab disaster.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock

It always starts the same for me. I’ll be doing some task at my workplace and nothing is going right. Inevitably, that situation will progress to a meeting with my boss, some coworkers, and maybe a former college professor or two who decide to have an excruciating discussion of my shortcomings. I’ll look around, bewildered. And then suddenly I’ll wake up, heart pounding, and find myself in my bed at home at 2:00 a.m. It’s happened again—I’ve had another anxiety dream about work.

Dreaming about work is a bizarre phenomenon, but I know it’s common. I’ve heard stories that even famous chemists like Dmitri Mendeleev dreamed about their work. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have dreams about solving research problems. Rather, I tend to have dreams about work when I have looming deadlines, uncomfortable emails to send, or potential conflicts to resolve between coworkers.

My constant dreams about work led me to the fascinating bookWhy We Sleep, by University of California, Berkeley, sleep scientist Matthew Walker. There I learned that, in one study, between 33 and 55% of people’s dreams come back to emotions and concerns people were having while they were awake. Walker also says that in general, people who worked through their emotions in dreams had improved mental health over those who did not. I was relieved to know that I’m not the only one thinking about work in their sleep. It helps to know that dreams are the mind’s way of dealing with difficult emotions that came up during the day.

I tend to have dreams about work when I have looming deadlines, uncomfortable emails to send, or potential conflicts to resolve between coworkers.

Our dreams are also a place to explore old memories, Walker’s book says. Certain stages of sleep can do “the elegant trick of divorcing the bitter emotional rind from the information-rich fruit” of past experience, he writes. That might explain why my dreams regularly return me to graduate school. In one dream I’m wandering around aimlessly looking for the room where I am supposed to present my work to my principal investigator (PI). Once I finally find the room, I fumble around with the overhead slides and can’t answer questions about my work. Suddenly, my PI will look me in the eye and say, “Well, you’ve always been a disappointment to me.”

This never once happened to me in real life. But these dreams show me that I still feel guilt about the approach I often took to group-meeting presentations in graduate school and the importance I placed on what my PI thought of me. It’s not a coincidence that I am now an inveterate preparer for any kind of public speaking and worry about how my work leaders view my performance.

In general, I know I would feel better if I were getting more sleep. Early-morning meetings with collaborators or late nights working on deadlines seem to conspire against me. Even when I get to bed, I’m not great at so-called sleep hygiene. My cell phone is the main culprit. I can’t help but scroll through my work emails one more time before I drift off to dreamland. Avoiding my email before bed is probably the first step to getting more and better sleep, for me and probably for most people.

But when I do settle down for bed, I won’t be surprised when those dreams take me to the lab or the office. If you’re like me and you’re thinking about work while you’re sleeping, know that you’re not alone. In fact, it is a normal way for your brain to process and draw lessons from a tough day or a hard week. It’s good to know that while our bodies are sleeping, our minds are preparing us for the next day’s work.

Chemjobber is an industrial chemist who blogs about the chemistry job market at Find all his columns for C&EN and suggest future topics at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.


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