Most workers returned to their jobs today after observing the one day set aside annually to celebrate work, but for 8.5 million Americans Labor Day was another day to reflect on life without a job.

Jobless persons, and workers who have been unemployed or fear they may be, say their ordeal is more traumatic than statisticians or employment experts can measure.

"In our society, once you're an adult you're expected to work," said Mary H. Johnson, president of Comptex Associated Inc., a District nonprofit organization offering life management training and job placement.

"When you're unemployed you're looked at as worthless, lazy or someone with a problem. We've even had employers say, 'I don't see why this person doesn't have a job. Does he have a personality problem? A person with these skills should be working.' "

Johnson's organization is trying to make a dent in the District's unemployment rate, which was at 8.5 percent for June, the highest in the area. In that same month, unemployment was 5.3 percent in Alexandria; 4.2 percent in Arlington and 3.5 percent in Fairfax. The Maryland suburbs all maintained an unemployment rate below 4 percent.

While the employment experts look at long-range solutions for the area, individuals deal with the personal dramas related to unemployment.

"Sometimes I think: Maybe I'll wake up and this is all a bad dream," said Douglas Pearce, 42, a Treasury Department security specialist, who because of a medical disability is facing early retirement and, perhaps, unemployment.

"I like to work," said Pearce, recalling another 10-month ordeal in 1977 when he was unemployed. "Those were trying times. I was depressed, really depressed," he said. "I was sleeping in a sleeping bag in an empty apartment with only sheets for curtains.

"Used up all my savings and went to apply for food stamps," Pearce recalled. "They said I was making $2 too much in unemployment . I told them they could keep the $2 if I could get stamps and have something to eat."

But in addition to financial reasons to work, Pearce, now married and the father of two, said, "I don't want to just sit around. Getting up every morning and going to work is important to me."

Pearce has set his own value on work, but experts say most attitudes about work are determined by society.

"There's a consensus that the central life role is your work role," said Ken Kusterer, chairman of the sociology department at American University. "This role . . . shapes your identity, determines your feelings of self-esteem and self-worth and your basic concept of who you are.

"It becomes a problem when there is unemployment, or a person works by any standards beneath their capabilities, beneath their dignity," he said.

Often, Kusterer said, upper- bracket workers who are between jobs will describe themselves euphemistically as "self-employed consultants."

"You can watch at cocktail parties when people feel each other out and one of them puts forth this consultant facade," said Kusterer. "You can watch the other people devalue them right before your eyes.

Lee Miles, 26, who is looking forward to beginning a job as a construction laborer this week, said he took a brief hiatus from work to get his priorities straight and decide what direction he wanted to take. But he noted the discomfort of being out of work.

"I noticed one of the first questions people ask you is, 'What do you do for a living?' " said Miles. "If you say you don't work, they look at you as if you're a shifty character. I guess I didn't like that."

Miles said he has studied engineering, but finds most of the work in his field these days is in defense-related jobs and "I didn't want that." Miles said he survived on his wits, "selling accumulated assets and subletting" until he found work.

Others, who lack the resources to sustain a long period of joblessness, said they found it a debilitating experience that made it more difficult to reenter the job market.

Maria Manga, 28, a mother of two who was laid off from her secretary's job for the U.S. Postal Service when the L'Enfant Plaza offices where she worked were shut down by a fire last spring, said the loss of income hit quickly and hard.

"I was deeply depressed because I didn't have any support for my two children," said Manga, a District resident who recently started working as a clerk-typist.

"I wasn't ashamed because I wasn't working," she said. "But I was annoyed and hurt. I went to interviews every day, even jobs I didn't want. I can't say I love this job I have now, but it's a job."