All of us want to be happy in our careers. That much goes without saying. But most of us have also killed time at jobs we don’t really care about – even jobs we hate.
But now a new study has confirmed what we all already knew, deep down: doing a job that doesn’t make you happy is bad for you.
In a major piece of new research, sociologists at Ohio State University in the US discovered a link between job satisfaction (or a lack thereof) in our late 20s and 30s, and our physical and mental health in our 40s.
And while job satisfaction was found to have some effect on physical health, its impact was shown to be especially strong on mental health later in life – potentially leading to issues such as depression, anxiety and trouble sleeping.
“We found that there is a cumulative effect of job satisfaction on health that appears as early as your 40s,” says Jonathan Dirlam of Ohio State University’s sociology department, lead author of the study.
The researchers analysed data from almost 6,500 Americans who took part in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, which tracked adults who were aged between 14 and 22 when the survey began in 1979.
They looked at how happy people were with their jobs between the ages of 25 and 39, asking them to rate how satisfied they were with their careers from 1 (dislike very much) to 4 (like very much) over the course of those years.
Using this information, researchers were able to split the participants into four groups. Two of these groups felt positive about their careers between the ages of 25 and 39: those who were consistently happy at work, and those who felt gradually more content as time passed.
The other two groups were generally unhappy with their careers, although in subtly different ways. They either saw their job satisfaction decrease over time, or just felt plain dissatisfied the whole time.
After all of these participants turned 40, the researchers then asked them a range of questions related to their physical and mental health.
Mental health was the most affected by how people felt about their jobs. People who were unhappy at work throughout their early careers consistently reported higher levels of depression, sleep problems and excessive worrying. They were also more likely to have been diagnosed with emotional problems, and generally scored lower on an overall mental health test.
Similarly, participants whose job satisfaction started out relatively high – but then dipped – were also more likely to feel worried and have trouble sleeping, and often had lower scores for mental health.
In contrast, people whose job satisfaction improved from their mid-20s to their late 30s saw no comparative mental health problems.
While job satisfaction (or lack thereof) didn’t affect physical health as much as mental health, it was still found to have a clear impact. Those who were consistently unhappy at work, or whose satisfaction declined between the ages of 25 and 39, said that their physical health was worse overall in their 40s. They also reported more problems such as back pain and frequent colds than people who felt content with their careers.
However, happiness at work wasn’t found to have any effect on physical health in terms of basic functioning, or in doctor-diagnosed diseases such as cancer and diabetes.
“You don’t have to be near the end of your career to see the health impact of job satisfaction, particularly on your mental health,” says Hui Zheng, associate professor of sociology at Ohio State, who also worked on the study.
Zheng adds that these participants were only in their 40s when their health was assessed – so job dissatisfaction in our 20s and 30s could still have other, longer-term mental and physical effects.
“The higher levels of mental health problems for those with low job satisfaction may be a precursor to future physical problems,” he says.
“Increased anxiety and depression could lead to cardiovascular or other health problems that won’t show up until they are older.”
Dirlam also notes that their study ended before the Great Recession began in 2008 – suggesting that the generation who were in their late 20s and 30s during the recession may experience more negative mental and physical health effects in later life.
“The recession almost certainly increased job insecurity and dissatisfaction, and that could have resulted in more negative health effects,” he says.
So if you’ve been idling away in a job that doesn’t make you happy, this might be the motivation you need to take stock – and get out of there.
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