If you hate your job in your 20s, it could literally make you ill in your 40s

ByJames Dennin

Your first — or second — job out of college has a greater impact on your long-term health than you might expect, according to a study led by the Ohio State University researchers.

Specifically, the research suggests if you're miserable at work as a 20-something, you'll be at greater risk for back problems, frequent colds, depression and more when you're older.

Using government data collected from the year 1979 onward, the study tracked more than 6,000 Americans between the ages of 14 and 22, who ranked their job satisfaction periodically until they reached age 40, between the mid-'90s and early aughts.

Then the authors analyzed health survey data for the same group, to see how they were faring in older age.

The researchers identified four main groups: Those who either always hated or loved their jobs — and those whose job satisfaction trended either up or down. 

What they found should give anyone who hates their job pause, particularly younger workers.


People who reported low job satisfaction throughout their careers scored lower across all five measures of mental health included in the study. They were more anxious, reported sleep problems and greater rates of depression, and scored lower in an overall appraisal of their mental health. 

They also were more likely to report emotional problems. 

While the impact was clearest in terms of mental health, respondents also reported physical problems as well: People with low job satisfaction were more likely to report lower back problems and get frequent colds. 

Mercifully, researchers did not find any links between job satisfaction and more serious illnesses like cancer and diabetes — although they did raise the possibility that these types of diseases could manifest themselves even later in life, thanks to all that anxiety and poor sleep. 

"Increased anxiety and depression could lead to cardiovascular or other health problems that won't show up until they are older," the researchers wrote. 

Oh joy! 

Luckily the study offered some hope.

Researchers found that even a short period of job satisfaction can mitigate some of the negative effects: Respondents who reported liking their jobs early on didn't experience some of the more serious symptoms like emotional problems or depression — even if their later satisfaction scores dipped.

And the people who hated their jobs early on, but then started reporting greater and greater satisfaction over time? They didn't experience any physical side effects at all. 

It's not exactly a surprise that terrible jobs stress people out, but the study results make a powerful case for moving toward jobs that make you happier as you advance through your career. 

The research — which controlled for factors like physical activity, self-esteem and smoking — was presented Monday at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting in Seattle.

"Papers presented at the ASA Annual Meeting are typically working papers that have not yet been published in peer-reviewed journals," Jeff Grabmeier, Ohio State University research communications director, said in a press release.

One big caveat? The authors acknowledge that their study's survey-based design has limitations, and could be picking up on a reverse effect: Health problems could be leading to lower job satisfaction, rather than the other way around.