Corporate wellness programs have become a regular feature in internal and external marketing. Wellness is a major part of promoting the bells and whistles companies offer, for both recruiting and retention purposes, and it occupies a regular section in the overpopulated “best places to work” competitions sponsored by seemingly every media outlet.

According to an HR/Benefits Pulse survey by the ADP Institute, wellness is big business—an $8 billion industry with more than 5,550 vendors. The most recent statistics from the Minnesota Department of Health show that about 55 percent of Minnesota businesses with 100 or more employees offer some type of company wellness or “health promotion” program. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a large employer that didn’t have some type of corporate wellness program.

Nationally, half of all organizations with 50 or more employees have some type of wellness program, while 36 percent of firms with more than 200 workers and 18 percent of firms overall use some type of financial reward tied to specific behavioral goals such as weight loss or quitting smoking.

The numbers rise even higher for firms that also offer health insurance. A 2014 survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Annual Trust found that a whopping 74 percent of all firms offering health insurance in 2014 also offered wellness programs. The data also showed that larger companies (200-plus employees) were more likely to offer programs than smaller companies were (63 percent vs. 46 percent).

Proponents claim that these programs have positive impacts ranging from reduced absenteeism and improved productivity to improvements in recruitment and retention. Employers tout all kinds of services including health risk assessments and coaching, on-site classes, massage, weight-management support, nutritional counseling and healthy food options in the company cafeteria. Here at our agency we do an annual “Biggest Loser” competition at the beginning of the year. We have regular chair massages, yoga classes, and subsidized health club memberships if employees work out at least a dozen times a month.

Improved employee health and controlling health care costs are the primary drivers for employers, according to the ADP Pulse survey. And while financial motivation may be at the top of the list, companies are not shy about selling the sizzle of wellness.

Several well-publicized studies lately have questioned the effectiveness of corporate wellness, however, so I wonder if it’s all a case of “me too” irrational exuberance, with everybody jumping on the bandwagon. With $8 billion on the line, it’s a valid question, since employers pick wellness programs as their most effective tool in reducing health costs.

The results are confusing, and vary depending on which study you look at.

Three studies have gotten significant attention lately—one from the Rand Corporation and two published in the journal Health Affairs. They basically conclude that disease management delivers a much greater return on wellness investment for companies than lifestyle management does.

Locally, Graco has implemented an outcomes-based incentive program with financial rewards/savings that combined education and resources such as a full-time health consultant and a registered nurse to help employees with issues like weight management, physical activity, diet and living an overall healthy lifestyle. Graco also paid for Weight Watchers and gave employees financial support for things like running events and sports leagues.

The company tracked results and during a four-year period saw a 6 percent decline in obesity, along with improvements in controlling high blood pressure, bad cholesterol and triglycerides. Almost as important, 92 percent of employees surveyed said that the outcomes-based incentive program motivated them to monitor their biometric measures and to try to bring their lab values under control. Not bad.

Your results may vary. At our agency, health care costs have gone down just a bit, though not significantly. (We also have a pretty youthful employee population with fewer chronic health issues.) Days off for sickness on average haven’t changed much, and we haven’t asked employees about behavioral changes for fear of seeming too intrusive. I think the biggest gain from our wellness program is in employee morale.

After reviewing a wide variety of research, it seems that there are too many moving parts and variables to make an absolute call when it comes to the effectiveness of corporate wellness programs, but it’s now integral to how companies market themselves. And one thing’s for sure: It’s important to have one, especially when it comes to millennials, who expect them.

Glenn Karwoski (g.karwoski@creativepr.com) is founder and managing director of Karwoski & Courage marketing communications agency. He also teaches at the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas and in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota.

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