Scientists have developed the first accurate measure of the impact of stress on the human body and the ability to cope with adversity.

Scientists have developed the first accurate measure of the impact of stress on the human body and the ability to cope with adversity.

The test, designed by cardiology experts, is expected to have a huge impact on how bosses detect which of their employees are under strain from an intolerable workload.

Officially launched in pharmacies and clinics this summer, the monitoring system called Stresserve works by measuring the variability of an individual's heart rate. A score of eight to 10 shows a patient is very resilient to stress or at least healthy. A reading of one to five shows that their reserves for coping with stress are critically impaired.

The official definition of stress, which has become one of the most talked-about afflictions of the 21st century, is unreasonable emotional or mental demands being placed on a person which produce an adverse reaction. It creates specific responses in the body such as tensing muscles and an increased pulse rate which in the long term can lead to serious illness such as cancer.

Anxiety and stress are responsible for the loss of around 45 million working days a year and they also contribute to underperformance among people who do not take sick leave and struggle to stay on the workplace treadmill.

A report published this week by the mental health charity Mind will claim that excessive stress at work is causing an epidemic of depression and anxiety at a cost to the British economy of about £100bn a year. Stress-related mental illness has now taken over from back pain as the main reason why people are unable to work.

Most men and women with busy working and social lives complain that they are stressed, but in reality it is a combination of personality, genetics and lifestyle that determines if the pressures of modern existence are actually damaging their health.

Professor Andrew Coats, the dean of Sydney University's medical school and an expert in heart medicine, said that developments in physiology and biomathematics have led to increased insights into measuring the effects of stress on the body. "This can allow us to estimate not only the impact of stress but also how much reserve capacity is left to cope with further stress," said Mr Coats, who helped to design Stresserve.

The three-minute test involves a clinician placing straps on the patient's wrist pulse points. The straps are then connected to a machine which gives a readout on how exposure to stress has affected the person on a long-term basis and if they are mentally or physically unwell. In trials, a male patient who scored one was later found to have type one diabetes which had been undiagnosed.

Dr Gillian Wannan-Smith, a specialist in neurology and immunology who is trialling the test, said: "Everyone has an ability to cope with stress but some people will be more prone to anxiety and others will be very resilient. Managing directors generally have the personality type to cope with the stresses they face, though they have to be careful not to run down their reserves because of the pressures they are under."

Highs and lows: six characters in search of where they're going wrong in life

Name: Viryam Robertson, 41

Job: Yoga teacher

Profile: Over the past month, the New Zealander has changed to a vegan diet with no alcohol or caffeine. "I have a medium degree of stress. As well as yoga practice, I run several days of the week." He is single and has no children

Score: 10

Verdict: His stress reserves are excellent. The only area where he could improve is in getting a bit more sleep.

Name: Douglas White, 27

Job: Sculptor/artist

Profile: A recent work trip involved travelling to Belize to collect two tons of exploded car tyres for an MA show. Douglas plays football for two hours a week and swims when he can. "The most stressful times are when it comes to putting on a show." Single, he lives in London

Score: 6

Verdict: Douglas has borderline reserves. He needs to take more exercise to help him cope.

Name: Carla Wheatley, 25

Job: Archiving clerk for a law firm

Profile: The single mother does not exercise and considers herself to be "very unfit". She says: "I don't think I am a particularly stressed person although at certain points of the day like getting ready in the mornings I certainly feel my stress level rising"

Score: 7

Verdict: Carla is experiencing moderate tension. Despite this, her pattern for dealing with stress is good.

Name: Michelle Burns, 33

Job: Runs own fashion business

Profile: Michelle describes her life as "hectic". Her strategy for coping with stress is to take a holiday every eight weeks. "My biggest problem is that I hate to miss out on anything. I work hard every day and go out almost every night"

Score: 10

Verdict: Her test showed she had excellent reserves although she should try to get more sleep, do more exercise and quit smoking.

Name: Daniel Taylor, 44

Job: Managing director

Profile: Daniel is married and has four children, aged from two to 15. He set up Metro Design Consultants, a design and build company, in 1998. He attributes his positive attitude to strong values that his parents instilled in him

Score: 8

Verdict: Despite his demanding job, Danielcopes well with stress. There is room to improve his diet and he needs more exercise.

Name: Carolyn Chivers

Job: Maternity nurse

Profile: The single mother, who is in her 50s, works 12 hours a night, six days a week, and is sometimes on 24-hour call. She does not have time for exercise but is active walking around her workplace

Score: 8

Verdict: Although she is sleep-deprived, her body's pattern for coping with stress is good. Her diet and alcohol intake is healthy but she should cut back on coffee.