Dream Job?

Work-related anxieties can invade your dreams—and wreck your next day

It’s one thing to take work home with you (or, as is so often the case these days, to work at home). But when job-related anxieties invade your overnight dreams, they can wreck your mood the next morning, too.

This ability of dreams to convey negative emotions from workday to workday is the crux finding of a paper by Christopher Barnes, a professor of management and Evert McCabe Endowed Fellow at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

“Dreams,” says Barnes, “play an important role in how work stressors which are experienced in a given workday are associated with mood the next morning.”

Respite or continuation?

Most of us look to home life as a refuge and respite from the stresses and strains of the workday. And sleep represents the ultimate retreat. In theory, at least.

In reality, the experiences of daily life provide the content for many of our dreams. Emotions felt during the day can color our sleeping mental activity. Bad experiences can shape bad dreams.

Chris Barnes

Among those bad experiences—breakups, health scares, financial woes—are a litany of work-related stressors, too.

To begin to understand the work-relevant causes and consequences of dreams, Barnes designed a daily diary study. He recruited 94 adults with full-time jobs to complete two surveys every day for two weeks. Each morning, participants reported the degree to which they ruminated about work-related stress, the affective tone of their dreams and their mood at the moment. Each evening, they reported the stressful challenges and hindrances experienced at work that day.

Challenges and hindrances

Barnes found that stressful work experiences incite pre-sleep rumination—our tendency to chew on the trials of the day before nodding off—which then affects the emotional tone of dreams during the night. This emotional tone continues to dictate our mood the following morning.

Among the study participants, stress derived from workplace hindrances led to more negative moods the next morning due to rumination and a negative effect on dreams.

Stress derived from workplace challenges muted positive moods in the morning due to rumination and a decrease in positive affect in dreams.

The results occurred above and beyond the effects of sleep quantity, sleep quality, and several other time-based control variables.

“These findings indicate that both hindrance and challenge stressors experienced in a given workday can indirectly dictate mood the following morning via the serial mechanisms of pre-sleep rumination and the emotions in subsequent dreams,” Barnes says.

In other words, dreams help one bad day at work turn into a second bad day.

Good sleep is not enough

Barnes’ initial study confirms that dreams can be an important means of linking work experiences and emotions from one day to the next.

This suggests that sleep is not always a positive form of recovery. Even when you get a full night of high-quality sleep, your dreams can have a side effect of enabling stressful work events to undermine your mood the next morning.

“Rather than getting a fresh start every day, work experiences follow employees through rumination into their dreams and into their moods the next morning,” Barnes says. “Dreams appear to be an important part of that process.”

An exploration of employee dreams: The dream-based overnight carryover of emotional experiences at work” is published in the April 2021 issue of the journal Sleep Health.

Ed Kromer Managing Editor Foster School

Ed Kromer is the managing editor of Foster Business magazine. Over the past two decades, he has served as the school’s senior storyteller, writing about a wide array people, programs, insights and innovations that power the Foster School community.