Stress levels in smartphone users can become so pronounced some start experiencing the “phantom vibrations” of non-existent test messages, new research has suggested.

University of Worcester psychologist Richard Balding conducted psychometric tests on 100 employed and student volunteers, finding that those who checked their smartphones often were more likely to experience emotional stress.

This was particularly true when the phones were being used in a work context, with users feeling under pressure to check for messages in order to keep abreast of workflow.

At its worst, as stress levels rose, workers would check their phones more and more often, creating a negative cycle in which a few even started believing that their phones were receiving alerts when no such alerts existed.

The conclusions on stress – released ahead of a presentation to be given this week at a British Psychological society conference – apparently held true regardless of profession. Simply using a smartphone extensively for work purposes was the common factor.

“Smart phone use is increasing at a rapid rate and we are likely to see an associated increase in stress from social networking,” Balding was quoted as saying by the Press Association.  

"Organisations will not flourish if their employees are stressed, irrespective of the source of stress, so it is in their interest to encourage their employees to switch their phones off; cut the number of work emails sent out of hours, and reduce people’s temptation to check their devices.”

The encroachment of work smartphones into personal life by workers is a well-established phenomenon, with a 2009 survey finding that a third of people used them for this purpose. Forty-three percent also said their handset made life more stressful.

The issue is really an extreme form of the increasingly intrusive format of technology since home telephones became common in the 1960s.