ENTRY FROM: 2019 Top Health Promotion Professionals

Nominee: Debra Lafler

Dr. Soul igniting the human spirit

Current company: Wisconsin Department of Health Services
Job title: Wellness and Employee Assistance Program Manager
Industry: Worksite Wellness
Years in Field: 24
Organization size: 6,000

--Doctorate in Spiritual Studies from Emerson Institute
--Master of Arts in Health Education from Columbia
--Bachelor of Arts in Communication and Certificates in Wellness and Coaching from University of Wisconsin at Parkside

--Well Workplace by the Wellness Council of WI
--Grief Support Specialist from the UW-Madison
--Holistic Stress Management Instructor from Paramount Wellness Institute
--Reiki-Level 1 from Group Health Cooperative-SCW
--Seminar Leader from CREATION Health at Florida Hospital
--Wellness Speaker from the National Wellness Institute
--Worksite Wellness Program Consultant, Director, Manager and Coordinator from the Chapman Institute (previously through the National Wellness Institute)
--Yoga Teacher from a Registered Yoga School
--Group Fitness from the YMCA of Dane County
--Personal Trainer and Fitness Counselor from the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA) [which recently merged with the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)]

--Wisconsin Champion of Employee Wellbeing by the Wellness Council of Wisconsin (2019)
--Female Figure and Fit Body Metals at the Wisconsin Natural Bodybuilding Championship (2014)
--Health Education Fellowship Award from Columbia University (2000-2001)
--Awarded membership to Lamda Pi Eta, National Communication Honor Society (1997)
--Graduated Cum Laude and with Honors in Communication, University of Wisconsin at Parkside (1997)
--USA Athlete in the Junior Division for USA Track & Field (1993-1994)
--Full Athletic Scholarship with the University of Wisconsin at Parkside (1994-1997)


a. What made you decide to go into the field? 
My freshman year in undergraduate, I took a “Lifetime Wellness” class where we learned the history of the wellness field (Halbert Dunn, John Travis, Don Ardell, and the National Wellness Institute). The holistic aspect touched me deeply. And sophomore year, I started working as a Peer Health Educator, where we did campaigns on various health and social issues with peers.

b. Which degree or certification has been the most valuable?
My Doctorate work in Spiritual Studies inspired me and helped me think “outside the box.”

c. Describe how you ‘walk the talk’ by living a healthy lifestyle?
I do aim each day to be positive, eat nutritiously, drink water, engage in physical activity and meditation. However, I am human and some days I don’t do everything perfectly. I personally “walk the talk” by doing what I can when I can, and forgiving myself when I can’t or don’t.

d. What resources/experiences helped you achieve leadership status?
WELCOA, the National Wellness Institute (NWI), and lots of books!

e. What advice would you give other wellness practitioners hoping to become leaders? 
Follow the work of WELCOA and NWI. See if you have a local Wellness Council that you can join. Read the free materials available on their websites. Go to the conferences. Join the social media groups. And introduce yourself, talk to/connect with the leaders in the field – in your city, state, and nationally. This field is a loving field and we all want to help foster each other. Connect!

I have created a holistic wellness approach that includes body, mind and spirit; switching the focus from physical health to well-being, including spiritual wellness. I speak openly about the human journey. 

a. SUCCESS STORIES (1-2 examples for each): 
I am sharing both quantitative and qualitative testimonials from employee emails.

Health improvement:
i.  “I have been following your (initiatives), and thanks to you I have changed my lifestyle…In one year, I lost 50#, and…my doctor removed my high blood pressure medications that I’ve been on for over 28 years.”

ii. “Saying that the Rainbow Challenge changed my life seems dramatic but it did! I have seen a dramatic improvement in my physical health as a result of this challenge.”

Behavior change:
i. “You have also taught me to love myself and support myself.” 

ii.  “I was able to take the first steps toward self-improvement because of (you)…Wellness information can be found in a lot of places, but you integrate it with your own personal stories of successes and setbacks, so I have an outlook of “if you can do it I can do it.” 

Culture change
iii. “I lost all track of time during your talk. You story quieted the room, hearts and minds. You could feel it. What you are cultivating, it seems to me, is rare and life-giving; and atmosphere of vulnerability, honesty, and integrity. I have never been a part of something so actually and potentially redeeming in any workplace…ever.”

iv. “I have worked for the State for over 25 years and I can attest that I’ve not noticed this type of holistic approach to wellness for state workers before your time. Your approach has been truly refreshing. Wonderful! With an emphasis on our human spirit rather than just our physical health.”



1) SUICIDE PREVENTION – Series of talks, and communication that brought the issue up. I told my personal story. Outcomes were qualitative in nature, mostly through email feedback. It helped people, brought the issue to light, and helped the culture embrace helping rather than ignoring the issue.

2) BETTER ME CHALLENGE – Each person got to decide to focus on BODY, MIND, or SPIRIT and then create a goals and plans. We had 346 people participate from across the state. Outcomes were based on the individual and what they chose to do. However, I emphasized progress and not perfection, and life lessons in lieu of goal achievement.

3) SPIRITUAL WELLNESS – I have worked to include the spiritual component into all of our programming. I focus on the holistic model (body-mind-spirit), and help employees define and identify with their human spirit (regardless of religious beliefs). I’ve opened up the discussion to create meaning, purpose and inspiration. Outcomes are the emails of gratitude I get from employees, and managers asking me to come speak to their teams. It is changing the culture.


a. What do you think are the biggest threats or opportunities that the health promotion wellness industry faces throughout the next 5 years?

i. Focusing on physical health measures as indicator of success.
ii. Focusing on incentives as the primary motivator.
iii. Media criticism about worksite wellness (that it will taint the holistic vision of who we are, what value we have, and what’s possible beyond metrics.)

i. Make programming holistic (body, mind and spirit).
ii. Include spiritual wellness in programming.
iii. Tell stories, encourage vulnerability.
iv. Include qualitative evaluation.
v. Rediscover and redefine worksite wellness and its value.


b. In the next 5 years, what directions do you plan to pursue to advance the industry?
• I will encourage the opportunities I listed above.
• I would like to be a major voice for spiritual wellness:
   o Defining the spiritual component.
   o Identifying opportunities to include it in programming.
   o Creating approaches that inspire and touch the human spirit.
   o Providing education and resources for spiritual wellness.


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Debra L.
I am a Holistic Wellness Consultant, Coach and Motivational Speaker. I specialize in Worksite Wellness and Personal Wellness/Well-Being. I have a Doctorate in Spiritual Studies, Masters in Health & Behavior Studies-Health Education, and Bachelors in Communication and Certificates in Wellness and Coaching. I work currently as the Wellness and Employee Assistance Program Manager for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. I also teach for the University of Wisconsin's Health and Wellness Management Program. And I offer my expertise/services (coaching or speaking to groups) privately under my own company, Personal Wellness Development. View Debra L.'s Profile.
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Comments 4

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Your DHS healthy eating initiative inspired both a personal "behavior change" and an opportunity to suggest a "cultural change" with my co-workers. The idea of “eating the rainbow” of colorful fruits and vegetables is easy to remember: we reach for the deep purple cabbage and use it, (sliced and steamed) as a nutritious and, (with a touch of salt, pepper and butter,) delicious base for “spaghetti” sauce. For my Central Wisconsin Center's LUTwo "Snack Sunday," to team-build for those of us required to work every-other weekend, I've brought "Skinny Dip. " A sour cream & 0% fat yogurt combo with chopped rainbow-colored sweet peppers & scallions with minced dill. We are learning that eating well is essential to working well. Thanks, Debra, for your initiative's affirmation.

Ellen ("Elena") R. on 5/11/2019

Your information is always refreshing and re-invigorating, Debra. Thank you for your honest and diligent approach to all things "wellness". You are very much appreciated!

Charlotte A. on 5/01/2019

It has been a pleasure in getting to know you and thank you for inspiring to be my best self!

Angela S. on 4/30/2019

I am honored to work beside you each day. Congratulations on being nominated for this honor. I look forward to learning and growing with you as we continue this journey. All the best, Jason Horay

Jason H. on 4/30/2019

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