Tione leaned back in her chair. “I am tired a lot,” she smiled, surveying her desk full of files, her laptop gently humming.
“My youngest is only a few months old. And the eldest is eight years, so there is a big gap. When I go home at night, around six, I go to bed at nine. And then back up at six,” she laughed, ruefully.
Tione is a working mother. She is a finance manager, responsible for managing the budgets of 14 projects across Malawi. She works around 45 hours a week, then goes home to tend to her children.
Every mother in Malawi works. Female staff fill the city offices and shops, supported by an army of female nannies and cleaners. Only the very rich live a life of leisure.
In the rural areas, where the majority of Malawi’s 18 million population live, it is mostly women who grow the maize that feeds the country.
Women will leave the fields to give birth, then return, the baby strapped to their back with a chitenje, a piece of brightly coloured cloth. “It was tiring,” says Clara, mother of seven, who at 64 still hoes the rich, red soil to plant her family’s crops. “But it is life,” she shrugs.
Life for working mothers here in Scotland is tiring too. And worse, it now appears that working full-time is bad for their health.
Research published this week by the University of Manchester shows that working mothers are much more stressed than their colleagues with no children.
The study found that the overall level of 11 biomarkers related to chronic stress – including stress-related hormones and blood pressure – are 40 per cent higher in women bringing up two children while working full-time, and 18 per cent higher for women with one child.
And forget working from home and flexitime. The research shows that neither has any effect on a working mother’s level of chronic stress. Only working fewer hours makes an impact.
Most women don’t have a choice about whether to work or not once their children are born. Yes, there are some lucky women who are eager to return to work, relishing the pressures of bringing up baby while climbing the promotion ladder. They are, genuinely, superwomen.
But the majority work full-time because they have to, clocking in every day to a job that saps their energy, but is essential to pay the bills.
Life in 21st century Scotland, where the median wage is £453 a week, is tough for most families. A job is a necessity, not a fulfilling career.
Imagine being a nurse, working a mandatory 12-hour shift, then coming home to grapple with homework, lost gym shoes and bed-time stories. Or a care-worker, a call-centre agent, or a cleaner ... Barely earning a living wage for a job that is damaging your health and disrupting your family life.
Sitting here in Malawi, 5,000 miles from home, I feel semi-detached from the incompetent chaos that is Brexit, but I occasionally catch a glimpse of Sky’s Kay Burley interviewing yet another preening politician on my guesthouse’s cable TV.
These cosseted nonentities, jostling each other for the nearest TV camera, are making me angry.
Where is their passion for the millions of children living in poverty across the UK, or for elderly people forced to sit in their own faeces for hours because their carer has too many people on her list?
And where is their righteous anger about working mothers who are risking their health to earn a full-time wage so that they can put food on their table and shoes on their kids’ feet?
None of these people, with a few notable exceptions (Jess Phillips anyone?), seem to have anything but the most tenuous understanding of how real people live their lives, particularly working mums.
What we need now is nothing short of a workers’ revolution, and one in which employers give the well-being of their staff as much consideration as their profit margin or share price, or even their executive bonuses.
The UK Government’s Good Work Plan, unveiled last December and buried under the Brexit avalanche, is a baby step in the right direction. It offers some protection for people working in the “gig economy” – otherwise known as exploitative zero-hours contracts – and a ban on bosses making deductions from staff tips.
But much more needs to be done to support working mums – and dads – cope with the strain of working full time and bringing up a family.
Flexible working is part of the answer, but in reality, you have more chance convincing your boss you can work compressed hours if you are middle-ranking civil servant than if you are an A&E nurse or care worker.
What stressed working mothers need is a mandatory four-day week – or 28 hours – with the same pay. Just as we moved from a six-day working week to five days without the economy collapsing, then surely we are now ready for the next, logical step. As we contemplate the economic reality of cutting ourselves off from our biggest single market, and going it alone in the precarious global economy, we need bold interventions that will make workers – our economy’s lifeblood – happier and more productive.
The TUC backs a four-day week. The Labour party is toying with the idea, “because I think people are working too long”, said Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell last December. And employers too will, eventually, see the wisdom of offering their most precious resource a healthier work-life balance. Remember the furore over Labour’s plans to introduce a minimum wage. “Millions of jobs will be lost” screamed bosses.
“It is bad for small business, bad for investment, bad for competitiveness and bad for exports and jobs,” boomed the then Tory MP John Bercow, now Speaker of the House.
Twenty years later and the minimum wage is a fact of business life that no-one, not even the most right-wing free-marketeer, would consider dismantling. Well, perhaps Jacob Rees-Mogg, but no serious economic thinker.
Yesterday I asked Tione if she would like to work fewer hours but get the same salary.
She looked at me as if I were mad. “Is that possible?” she asked.
“One day, it will be,” I replied.
And that day can’t come soon enough for working mothers everywhere who are damaging their health to earn a living wage.