IN WHAT WE FOUND to be a most illuminating series of articles last week, Washington Post staff writer Kathy Sawyer described a phenomenally pervasive upheaval in America today - namely, the changes in the way people perceive and handle their work time. Lifestyles and income distribution are undergoing new scrutiny as more people decide they want to work less - and are willing to give up some of their pay to do so. While they may get no immediate sympathy from the millions who are now out of work and need and want jobs, the shifts that are occuring could well mean at least a piece of the action for many of the unemployed.

As the series points out, the increasing demand for more flexibility in work hours has been spearheaded by the growing number of women - now estimated to be 40 per cent of the total U.S. work force - who are trying to balance conflicting job and family responsibilities. Swelling this movement are the elderly, the physically handicapped and many younger workers who for various reasons find the 40 - hour week an obstacle. These conflicts between work and personal lives have in many instances led to domestic turmoil, tension and re-examinations of values.

The reactions of employers, unions and jobholders to these changes have not been been entirely friendly, either. The new patterns do no fit all job situations equally well - but they are finding supporters. There is job - sharing, for example, which seems to be an answer for certain compatible people whose responsibilities can be clearly defined. In one instance cited in the series, Georgetown's Fillmore School and the D.C. public school system are apparently content with the work of Andrea Adler and Pat Mitchell, who share the job of principal. The two women, who wanted time to devote to their children, have a strong personal and professional relationship and don't mind sharing the job and the pay.

When it is not a matter of preference, work-sharing - means redistributing the available work as well as sharing the unemployment - has often proved more acceptable than laying off a percentage of the work force. Still another change in work habits is "flexitime," in which employees' work hours may stay the same, but the schedule allows them to vary their starting and quitting times or to do a week's work in four days.

Some employers resist these sorts of changes out of a concern for extra costs or administrative incovenience, or because they believe that the commitment or skills of part-time workers cannot match those of full - time employees. Other opponents, including many of the labor unions, maintain that these programs do little to ease aggravate them by pulling more people into the work force and depressing wages and other contractual rights of full - time workers. They are understandably concerned about what might happen to all sorts of benefits, seniority, premium pay for overtime and the rest.

Yet many of their members today want more time off instead of more pay, and sensitive union leaders are taking hard looks at alternatives. Employers, for their part, may find that the changes increase productivity, improve morale, decrease turnover and, as the Civil Service Commission suggests, "improve the quality of working life." In any event, the changes in lifestyles and perceptions of work do not appear to be mere passing fads. They are going to require - among employers and members of the work force alike - a new measure of flexibility and willingness to experiment.