Job satisfaction in your 20s and 30s may impact your health later

A new study finds job satisfaction during your 20s and 30s may play a role in your health years later.

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Everybody has bad days at work, but 20- and 30-somethings who are generally unhappy with their jobs may experience some health backlash by the time they reach their 40s​, new research suggests.

A number of previous studies have found links between job satisfaction​ and physical and mental health. Now researchers from The Ohio State University say their work shows that happiness on the job (or lack thereof) appears to have the biggest impact on midlife mental health.

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from a bigger study conducted by the state of Ohio for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics starting in 1979 that included information on job satisfaction.

Lead study author Jonathan Dirlam, a doctoral student in sociology, told CBS News, “We thought this would be great to use in a study on job satisfaction and its health effects​ over the life course. Very few if any studies have done this, so we thought it would make for an interesting contribution to this topic.”

They followed the job trajectories of study participants from the time they were 25 up until age 39, sorting them into four groups: consistently lower job satisfaction, consistently high job satisfaction, people whose satisfaction started low but trended higher, and those who started high but declined over the years.

About 45 percent of participants consistently reported feeling lower than “very satisfied” when it came to job satisfaction. Another 23 percent trended downward as the years passed. About 17 percent reported an increase in job satisfaction over time, and about 15 percent of people were consistently happy at work throughout their 20s and 30s.

“We found that those with lower job satisfaction levels throughout their late 20s and 30s have worse mental health compared to those with high job satisfaction levels. Those who initially had high job satisfaction but downwardly decreased over time also had worse health,” Dirlam said.

They were more likely to report depression​, sleep problems​ and excessive worry, and scored lower on a test of overall mental health, the researchers said.

The study, presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, suggests there is a cumulative effect when it comes to job satisfaction, and it’s reflected in your health by your early 40s.

Dirlam pointed out an important distinction in the study’s terminology, noting that the lowest group did not report low satisfaction levels at work, “but rather, lower than ‘very satisfied.’” The lowest group still had average satisfaction levels around “satisfied.”

“The majority of people are either ‘very satisfied’ or ‘satisfied’ with their job. But we find that even the subtle distinction between ‘very satisfied’ and ‘satisfied’ has significant effects on your health. I would say our study’s main findings are you’re likely to have worse health if you don’t love your job rather than if you hate your job,” said Dirlam.

The study did not include the time period of the recent “Great Recession,” which began in December 2007 and ran about two years. The author noted, though, that job satisfaction levels​​ in the U.S. have been declining since the 80s, a trend he expects to continue as the long-term effects of the Great Recession are felt.

“The main reason is due to increased job insecurity. People are not as sure if they will always have their job today compared to 30 years ago. Having more permanent occupations would help increase satisfaction levels,” he explained.

While income is important to consider when you’re first launching your career, Dirlam said, “It may be more beneficial for overall life satisfaction to take a job with slightly less pay if that job will give you higher job satisfaction. Most people spend almost half of their waking life at work and it’s important that you are able to find some joy during this time.”

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    Mary Brophy Marcus covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com