Background Long-term patterning of non-employment among problem drinkers is poorly understood. We determined the level and timing of non-employment, and the relative contribution of various types of non-employment among middle-aged persons who died of alcohol-related causes. Methods We conducted a longitudinal retrospective register-based study of Finnish men and women aged 45-64 years who died of alcohol-related causes (n = 15 552) or other causes (n = 39 166) in the period 2000-07, or who survived (n = 204 422) until the end of 2007. We traced back the number of days in employment and non-employment for up to 17 years before death or before the end of the study period for the survivors. Results The majority ([greater than or equal to]56%) of persons who died of alcohol-related causes were in employment up to ten years before death. Over the 17-year period before death, those who died of alcohol-related causes were in employment on average two years less (mean 6.3 years, 95%CI 6.2-6.4) than those dying of other causes (8.2, 8.1-8.3), and five years less than survivors (11.6, 11.5-11.7), when sex and age were adjusted for. The relative role of various types of non-employment differed markedly across the two mortality groups. Among those who died of alcohol-related causes, unemployment accounted for 54% of the total burden of non-employment, in comparison with 29% among those who died of other causes. In contrast, disability pension accounted for 41% of the total burden of non-employment among those who died of alcohol-related causes, but 65% among those who died of other causes. Conclusions The results indicate the feasibility of preventing movement out of employment among middle-aged men and women with severe alcohol-related harm, provided that they are identified early on during their working careers and offered effective interventions.