Many long-term care operators have begun to put wellness programs in place. And by most accounts, they seem to be working out well so far.

By encouraging staff to eliminate bad health choices and embrace good ones, operators can gain more productive employees who require fewer days off. And by the way, healthcare costs also can be trimmed. Employees in such programs tend to feel better and live longer, especially those who have given up cigarettes and dropped a few pounds.

By some estimates, employers are now spending more than $2 billion each year on wellness-related efforts. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that about half of all large firms have adopted programs that measure things like weight, blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

But do wellness programs really work? The short answer appears to be that we don’t know. An analysis released by Rand Corp. concluded that there’s not yet enough evidence on which to base an informed conclusion.

That’s worth considering, because the stakes here are about to be raised. Starting in January, a provision in the Affordable Care Act will let employers raise insurance premiums for workers who fail to meet certain health metrics by up to 30% (currently, the maximum is 20%).

What we seem to have here are the makings of a good idea that’s about to be taken to ridiculous extremes.

I think we can all agree that it’s a good thing for employees to give up cigarettes (if they smoke) and lay off habits that pave the way to chronic health problems. And firms have both a self-interest and benevolent reasons for encouraging workers to avoid dangerous habits.

But in a nation that cherishes the notion of free choice, employers had better tread carefully when it comes to telling people what to do on their own time, especially if it’s legal.

If you think you have legal and labor woes now, imagine what will happen if you happen to get branded as a discriminatory workplace.

Moreover, the idea of mandated wellness misses a larger point. Are people who obey wellness rules but perform jobs they despise likely to be healthier? I seriously doubt it.

Employers who want healthy employees should start by providing work that is perceived as being meaningful and important. Do that first, and you probably won’t need to spend much time measuring body mass indexes or counting discarded ciggy butts.